The Dander of Susan: A Pratt Portrait
SUSAN LEGGETT was sound as a nut at sixty. Not that sixty is any age at all, so far as that goes. Susan’s grandmother, Old Lady Pratt, of delectable memory, would have called it the edge of the evening. But it was something, even at sixty, never to have an ache or a pain, and to be able to read the Dunbridge Weekly Chronicle without glasses. To be sure, one knew pretty well beforehand what was in the Chronicle, so that was no great feat; especially as they had n’t begun printing with mouse-colored ink at that period.
Susan’s detractors said that the reason she kept so young was that she was always having the entertainment of making other people lose their tempers without ever losing her own. But her partisans, who were greatly in the majority, averred that she never said sharp things behind a person’s back, — as indeed, where would have been the fun ? For Susan was essentially dramatic. She loved setting character in play; it was like throwing a stick to a terrier.
Her husband, the professor of Christian Ethics, had resigned his chair seven or eight years ago, because he imagined himself an invalid. Susan, having come into her share of the Spencer property at about that time, and being anxious to get back among her own folks in Dunbridge, had readily fallen in with this notion, though once the move was made, she stoutly denied that there was anything whatever the matter with him; which might have been disconcerting to the professor, only that he was used to Susan. He admired his wife immensely, and thought that she had a remarkable mind.
Of all the advantages attaching to her change of residence, none was more highly prized than the frequent opportunity of treating her brother James to the unvarnished truth, and then using her fine mind in an effort to discover what could have disturbed him. Susan was by no means devoid of tact; but, like her “real thread ” lace, she did not wear it “common.”
She was calling at her brother’s one day, when Nannie, her sister-in-law, pleading a headache, excused herself and left the room. James and Susan were invigorating personalities, but taken together they sometimes formed rather too powerful an astringent for a sensitive organism like Nannie’s. Her defection was viewed with pitying tolerance by Susan, who did not however feel called upon to exercise a like indulgence toward her eminently robust brother.
“You know, James,” she remarked, with unflinching sincerity, “ it’s all your fault, as I’ve told you time and again, Nannie’s being such an invalid. First you don’t let her lift a finger for fear she ’ll tire herself, which is enough to make any woman a gibbering idiot; and then keep her nerves on edge by blowing out at her every five minutes about nothing.”
“ Blowing out at her ?” was the indignant protest. “ I never blow out at her! Never blow out at anybody! ”
“ There, there, James; don’t get all wrought up, just as I’m leaving you.” And, as she rose to go, “ How’s Benny doing now ? ”
“ How’s Runny doing now?” James retorted viciously. For Ranny was Susan’s only child, and there were rumors about Ranny.
These had not reached Susan, however; so she was able to reply with telling emphasis, “ Oh, Ranny has never given us a moment’s anxiety,”and to leave the room with her head in the air. Susan was a short woman, not to say stout, but at mention of Ranny’s name she had the faculty of holding her head so high that one involuntarily looked for stilts.
James meanwhile kept his seat, a smouldering eye upon the departing chignon, which was quite as provocative in its way as the ringlets of yore. He and Susan had been near enough of an age for fraternal amenities; and as often as not, when she referred to the golden days of childhood, as she occasionally did, being of a sentimental turn, this was the picture that arose in his memory: a small boy in a sputtering rage, and a startled little girl, a size or two smaller, with a deservedly rumpled head-piece.
“ How’s Ranny doing now! ” she repeated, as she turned her steps homeward. “ I declare, there’s no lengths James won’t go when he’s out of temper. How’s Ranny doing, indeed! ” While as for Benny, — well, she certainly hoped he would not commit any more excesses, though if he did, she was too good an aunt not to wish to know all about it.
But what did James mean about Ranny ? That was really what was gnawing at her consciousness all the time that she was simulating concern for Benny. What did James mean by that peculiar echo of her own significant inquiry ?
The cousins were not far apart in years, but they had never had much in common. How should Ranny have much in common with a boy who was known to be dissipated ? — a word which Susan spelled in italics, but pronounced sotto voce. Her Ranny, her only child, upon whom every care had been lavished that Christian Ethics could devise or parental devotion bestow. She did not believe he had ever had a glass too much in his life; and as for cards, he hated the sight of them — would n’t even take a hand at euchre in the family circle. While Benny, poor boy, the youngest of nine, — of course his mother had had neither time nor strength to bring him up carefully. Really, a large family was a great mistake.
There had been a time when, if Susan had not been at bottom a thoroughly amiable woman, she would have hated her sister-in-law, whose babies used to come along so regularly that they might have been made a feature of the Old Farmer’s Almanac; while she, Susan, had waited nearly fifteen years for Ranny. When the boy did arrive he was but a puling infant, — and our forbears knew what that queer little word meant, if we don’t. It was thought in the family that the name Randidge Leggett, Junior, which was instantly clapped upon him, might have proved something of a facer for so young a child. But that was soon mended. For when, at a tender age, he was brought to Dunbridge and solemnly introduced to all the magi and magesses of the clan, Old Lady Pratt, without a moment’s hesitation, addressed him as “ Ranny.” Upon which he was said to have ceased puling and chirked right up.
To-day, when Susan arrived at home, she found the professor mousing among his papers in an aimless way that was growing upon him, now that he was out of a job. He glanced up at his wife as she entered, and willingly relaxed his efforts. It always did him good to see Susan come in. She was so brisk and hearty and wholesome. When she fretted because she was not tall and stately, like her sister Arabella (which she frequently did, merely for the pleasure of drawing him out), he would assure her that longnecked women were formed for poets to write verses about, — though the careless fellows sometimes neglected to do so, — while the roley-poley kind were made to be loved. Was it any wonder that Susan accounted her husband a profound thinker?
“ Well, my dear,” he inquired, “ been cheering up your neighbors? ”
She came over and dropped a kiss on the top of his head before replying. It had been her habit from time immemorial. Perhaps that was why she was the only person who seemed not to have observed that he was beginning to grow bald. As the professor would have put it, “ The attrition of a frequently repeated process tends to blunt the perceptions.” He used such erudite phrases in conversation with his wife, for, whether she understood them or not, she might always be depended upon to think that she did.
As she performed the customary rite, he got hold of her gloved hand and called her “ my love.” This he invariably did when he pressed her hand. Nor was he conscious in so doing of any attrition of the faculties.
“ I’ve been to see Nannie,” she announced, sitting down on the other side of the big study desk, and drawing off her gloves. “ James was in a shocking temper. What do you suppose he asked me ? ”
“ I’m sure I can’t imagine.”
“ He asked me how Ranny was doing! Now, professor, what do you suppose he was driving at ? ”
“ Perhaps he had heard of Ranny’s promotion.”
“ Ranny’s promotion ? What do you mean ? ”
“ Why, Ranny has just been in to tell us. He says they’ve moved him up a notch, and ” — he eyed her apprehensively — “he asked me to tell you, so I have to, my dear, — he may have to go west.”
“ Never! ” cried Susan, springing to her feet. “ Never! He shall throw the whole thing over before he goes west.”
“ I was afraid you might feel that way. Of course we should miss Ranny.”
“ Miss him ? Why, I would n’t have him go west to be President of the United States! ”
“ He would n’t have to,” the professor interpolated.
“ Go west? Go west? Where is the boy ? ”
“ He said he should n’t be in again until after we had gone to bed.”
“He’ll be in before I’ve gone to bed. You may rest assured of that! Why, Randidge, — ” And she stopped, with a little gasp. “ Do you suppose he was afraid to talk to me about it ? ”
“ Well, my dear, you are pretty decided in your views, and — he appears to be pretty decided himself in this instance. In fact, it struck me ” — and the professor began blinking through his glasses in a way he had when his brain was under its own steam, rather than towing in the wake of a brother savant, — “ it struck me that he was rather particularly pleased with this opening — for every reason.”
But Susan, in hot pursuit of her own thought, missed the implication.
“ There’s no need of his staying with the Stickman Company at all, if they put such conditions on his promotion.” She had sat down again, and it was evident to the professor that she was about to use her remarkable mind. “ Any one of his uncles could give him a new start,— James might certainly think of something, — though I don’t know that I could ever bring myself to ask a favor of him, after the way he spoke of Ranny just now.”
“ But, my dear,” the professor interposed, with pained insistence, “ I was about to say that what the boy seems to want is to — ” he hesitated, but there was no help for it, — “ to get away.”
“ Randidge! ”
As Susan spoke the word that was the Alpha and Omega of all she loved, she sank back in her chair, incapable of further speech, — and the professor knew what that meant. Ranny, her Omega, wanted to get away. To get away from home, from his father, from his mother, — to get away! Their only child, that they had waited for so long! Their one chicken! No, it was too much! And Susan, the brisk, the cheerful, the hearty, broke completely down.
Then the professor got on his feet and came over to her and, perhaps with a vague reminiscence of past favors, essayed to kiss the top of her head. But his glasses were dangling on the string, and he found himself so suddenly confronted with a bunch of apocryphal roses, that he was obliged to content himself with patting her shoulder and saying, “There, there!” which did just as well.
Then Susan looked up through her tears.
“ You won’t desert me,” she implored, clutching blindly at the sheet-anchor that had never failed her yet.
“ Desert you? ” he protested. “ Desert you! ”
And, as was ever the case in moments of conjugal fervor, his brain was fired with the familiar fiction that he had never loved another, and he found himself impelled as by automatic action to murmur something to that effect. What matter if there lived one or two elderly ladies who could have told a different tale? What mattered they, since they were clean forgotten! And so he comforted Susan, and cheered himself, with that immediate and unstinting devotion which is so much better than historic accuracy.
But when bedtime came and no Ranny, she would not let him share her vigil, but sent him off, in the well-founded assurance that, being an avowedly light sleeper, he was safe not to be disturbed by any echoes of the battle-royal for which she was preparing.
And when the house was quiet, Susan sat down on the top stair and waited. She could not have told why she chose just that conspicuous and uncomfortable situation, unless with some far-reaching strategical design. But there she sat, full-panoplied for the fray. And yet, while she knew that there was a struggle before her, she felt in no combative mood. Rather was she singularly open to gentle influences. That was because she was thinking of her boy, which always made her heart soft. And indeed, for all her martial aspect, never was there a heart more prompt to soften than Susan’s own.
She had turned down the gas in the upper passage-way, leaving the entry below brightly lighted as usual. The house was still warm, in spite of a bleak November wind outside, for the professor had but just banked down the furnace. Pleasant odors of geranium and heliotrope came floating up from the ware stand in the dining-room, while the ticking of a placid old clock, taking quiet note of the passing seconds, swelled to the slow stroke of eleven. The sense of home was very strong. Surely Ranny could never hold out against it. He would only have to look and listen — and smell — to feel that here was where he belonged.
Good boy! It was as Susan had assured her brother; he had never given them a moment’s anxiety. She had often said that if she had had a dozen children, she could not have loved the lot of them as she loved Ranny. He was so exactly what she would have wished him to be, — though there was no denying that she had been compelled to revise her specifications from time to time. She had fancied, for instance, that she wanted him to grow up tall, and of imposing carriage; but when he turned out short and stocky she saw that it gave him a singularly manly, trustworthy air. She had imagined that he would inherit his father’s scholarly tastes; but when he begged off from college and chose a business career, Susan was the first to declare that that was the thing for a man in a big grooving country like this. And even when he developed a slightly stolid temperament, — Susan called it judicial, — she perceived how much it was to the advantage of a man not to wear his heart on his sleeve. From the beginning she had accepted Ranny as the Lord made him, concerned only to perform aright her supplementary task of keeping his manners and morals straight; for, despite her cheerful commentary on the surface foibles of her kind, Susan had a fundamental respect for inherent character and tendencies. Here, however, in this present crisis, was no question of such weighty matters. This deplorable caprice of Ranny’s, — it was, it must be, fruit of some light impulse, lightly to be checked.
As the placid clock ticked off second after second, she told herself that she was really taking things too seriously. Ranny had no doubt felt flattered by the promotion, and for once his excellent judgment had been at fault. But as for his going west, — going west! And at the fatally reiterative phrase Susan clasped her hands together until the knuckles showed white. She would yield in everything else, but not here. On that path she felt herself a very rock of resistance. It seemed to her that no locomotive ever built could get past her if it were bearing Ranny away. She had a grotesque vision of the whole westward-bound traffic blocked by her stout person, immovable, indestructible, in its adamantine purpose.
The clock struck twelve; he must soon be here. And a sudden craving for the sight of him stirred her to impatience. Ah, there he was! How often had it happened that he came just when she most wanted him! And she held her breath as the latch-key turned in the lock, the big door opened, and Ranny stepped inside, — a short, close-knit figure, shutting the door and making it fast with a quiet decision of movement not suggestive of a pliable disposition.
As the young man turned to put out the gas, the light struck full on his face, and Susan’s nerves, strained already to severe tension, vibrated to the shock. The boy’s usually self-contained countenance was alive and alight as she had never seen it, not even in those rare moments of expansion which only his mother had shared. What could it mean, this look of exaltation, of strong emotional up-lift? She rose to her feet, prepared to take his secret by storm.
At sound of the movement he glanced up and saw his mother standing there; and swiftly, as in conscious self-defense, he turned out the gas. But not so quickly but that she had seen his face fall. A sickening reaction lamed her will. He had come in with the look of a young conqueror, and at the sight of his mother his face had changed. The mask of darkness that fell as the light went out had been no more effectual than that which his will had summoned at the same moment, against his mother.
“ Why, mother,” he exclaimed, “you up ? Anything wrong ? ”
Then Susan descended the staircase, leaning heavily on the balustrade, and coming up to him said, “ No, Ranny. There’s nothing wrong. I only thought I should like to kiss you good-night.”
“ Dear little mother! How nice of you! ”
But though he kissed her, dutifully enough, his words had not the true ring.
And so ended Susan’s first engagement with the enemy that she could not see, that she could not locate, of which her very scouts were afraid. And worsted for the moment, not by the errant son outside there in a hostile world, but by the mother in the innermost depths of her, she crept to her bed and passed a sleepless night.
But not for nothing had Susan husbanded her reserve fund of tact for great occasions, and never did it stand her in better stead than in the watches of that sleepless night, from which she arose with her plan of campaign distinctly mapped out.
Stepping to the front door with Ranny after breakfast, as was her daily custom, she said quietly, “ You’ll not decide anything hastily, will you, Ranny ? ”
“ No, mother,” he answered, surprised and touched by her forbearance.
“ Just when would it be if you go? ”
“ Not before January.”
“ Oh well,” was the cheerful rejoinder, “ that’s a long way off! ”
And upon that she gave him quite the same kind of kiss as usual; while the professor, witnessing the little scene from his seat at the breakfast-table, fell to winking his eyes and assiduously wiping his glasses.
But to-day Susan had no time to squander on sentiment, and no sooner had she got the ordering of her household off her hands than she made a bee-line for James’s store. She found him in his private sanctum, running through his mail, and, had she but guessed it, confidently anticipating her visit. For brother and sister had exchanged too many home truths first and last, not to be on terms of excellent understanding.
“ Now, James,” she began, without preamble, and planting herself at his elbow, “ out with it. What did you mean by asking how Ranny was doing now ? ”
“ Mean ? ” he repeated, beginning to sharpen a pencil, and breaking off the point. “ Why, I was only hitting back.”
“ Then you were hitting back. I thought so. Now — what do you know about Ranny ? ”
“ Mainly what his mother has told me,” he answered, protruding his lips in sign of craft and deliberation.
“ Come, James, don’t prevaricate. You meant something.”
But James seemed quite absorbed in his whittling.
“ Do you know anything about Ranny that I don’t? ” she demanded.
“ How should I know what you know ? ” His penknife was toying perilously with the attenuated point it had achieved. To relax his attention meant disaster.
“ James! ” The supplicating monosyllable struck home.
“ Well, Susan,” he admitted, with a shrug, “since you insist. It’s something that pretty much everybody seems to have got wind of, except you and Ran.”
Her hands were so tight-clasped by this, that one of the fingers of her glove split down the seam.
“Do you think that is right?” she asked quietly.
“ No,” cried James, tossing the pencil to one side, regardless of the point, “ I ’m blessed if I do! ”
“ Then, for pity’s sake, tell me! ” He was looking out at the neighboring chimney-pots.
“ It’s a girl,” he answered,
“ A girl ? Good heavens, James! But Ranny’s nothing but a boy! ”
“ That won’t help you any.”
“ But he’s too young.”
“ Stuff, Susan. He’s older than I was when I got married. We did n’t think it young then.”
“ Who is she? Do I know her? ” Her voice was grown monotonous.
“ You would n’t be likely to.”
“ Is she — respectable ? ”
“ I guess so.”
“ Guess so? James! ”
“ She’s a working girl. They’re usually respectable.”
“ What does she do? ”
“ Waits on table in an ice-cream saloon.”
But Susan never flinched.
“Where?” she asked, in the same dull, level tone.
“On Marlowe Street, next the theatre.” “ Do you know her name? ”
“ Not all of it. They call her Biddy.” And still she kept a steady front.
“ How did you find out about it ? ” she asked.
“ Well, Bill met them driving together a week ago; and the girls saw them at the cathedral at some musical shindy; and they’ve been rowing up-river. Mary Anne’s boys almost ran them down under the willows one day last August. It’s always Sundays. Guess they’ve been going together for a good six months.”
“ And nobody told me! ”
“ I suppose they kind o’ hated to bell the cat.”
“ James! ”
“ Oh, I’m not excusing them, nor myself either; though I did n’t know a word of it till Tuesday, and I’ve been trying to get the spunk to break it to you. For of course it’s got to be headed off, and the sooner the better.”
James rather prided himself on his family pride.
“ But how did everybody know who it was ? ” she persisted, driving hard at the point, like a seasoned cross-examiner.
“ Oh, it’s a place the young folks go to for an ice-cream of an afternoon, or after the theatre.”
“ After the theatre ? A young woman! For she is young ? ”
“ Presumably.” Then, with a keen look at his sister, “ Going to do anything about it? ”
“ Do anything! ” The challenge brought her to her feet. “ I rather think I am going to ‘do anything ’! ”
“ What are you going to do ? ”
“ I’m going to get an ice-cream ! ”
“Good!” he cried, springing to his feet. And as he held the door open for her, “ I’ll bank on you, Susan, when once you get your dander up! ”
And Susan, strong in the “ dander ” of that brotherly encomium, marched straight for the “ Ice-cream Parlor,” as it called itself, which already her imagination was painting in lurid colors. She was a bit taken aback to find it merely a quiet, decorous place, with rows of marble-top tables, mostly unoccupied at this hour, and a bevy of tidy waitresses gossiping in a corner. As the stout, elderly customer entered and took her seat, a prettyish little person with freckles, detaching herself from the group of girls, came down between the tables and stood at attention.
“ Bring me a chocolate ice-cream,” Susan commanded, endeavoring to look as if such were her customary diet at this hour of the day.
“ There’s nothin’ but vanilla so early in the mornin’.”
“ Then bring me vanilla! ”
Susan loathed vanilla and all its works; but that was neither here nor there. Cold poison would scarce have daunted her in this militant mood.
And when the initial sacrifice was accomplished, and she was valiantly imbibing of the highly flavored concoction, Ranny’s mother set herself to a systematic study of that group of girls. At first the half-dozen potential adversaries looked to her exactly alike, and one and all she regarded with impartial antagonism. But presently she found her attention concentrating upon a certain tall, showy blond, of stately bearing and masterful address, still further endowed with a rich brogue, — the only genuine thing about the hussy, Susan told herself, taking vindictive note of each unlovely trait which made the girl conspicuous. And that the maternal instinct, now keenly on the scent, should lack no confirmation, there straightway arose an agitated whisper of, “ Look sharp, Biddy; it’s your turn!” And behold the Biddy of her worst forebodings, bearing down upon a youth in tweeds, who had just seated himself at one of the tables, and taking him in charge, with an air of competence which left no doubt in Susan’s mind of the girl’s sinister identity. She recalled, with a shudder, Ranny’s fatal predilection for great bouncing partners, away back in dancing-school, when, to his mother’s unspeakable chagrin, he was forever leading out the tallest beanpole of the class. Yes; all signs and portents converged upon that stately siren; and as Susan grasped their ominous significance, her dander rose to boiling point, driving her brain in a dozen directions at once.
“ So you would propose offering her money?” the professor inquired, in his leisurely, speculative tone, when she had sprung upon him her whole arsenal of high-pressure conclusions.
“ To be sure. What else can we do ? Money is the only possible bait for a creature like that.”
Hm! Susan was undoubtedly right about it. And what a picturesque way she had of expressing herself! Only — might not the hook have to be heavily baited ? The professor, whose youth had known the spur of necessity, was not always able to share his wife’s exuberant indifference respecting the power that makes the mare go.
“ If only her demands be not exorbitant,” he ventured half-heartedly.
“ What if they are ? ” was the gallant rejoinder. “ You would n’t have the hussy put a low price on Ranny! ”
And that night Susan slept a sleep so confident and so unbroken, that morning was upon her in no time.
At the earliest possible hour, and wishing that she might have the incredible luck of attracting the siren to her service, she repaired to the scene of action. But again the little waitress of the previous day came forward, this time with an engaging smile of welcome.
“ We’ve got chocolate ice-cream this mornin’,” the girl announced, pleased as if catering to an honored guest.
“How nice of you to remember what I liked,” said Susan, glancing up into the friendly little face, which seemed all the more attractive for its piquant spatter of freckles.
“I always remember what folks like.” The unconscious disclaimer was pronounced with a slight brogue, — a mere cadence compared with the siren’s challenging accents, — but slight as it was, it touched a spring, and Susan’s thoughts were off and away.
Her intrepid fancy had just arrived at the point when she should confront the enemy, a check for a large amount in one hand, in the other some sort of legal quit-claim for Ranny, when a much over-dressed young woman made a rustling exit from the room, and Susan’s ear was caught by the delicate brogue of her own little Hebe, bubbling over with, “ Say, gurrls! did ye mind the hat on her ? Right on top of her head, where annybody could see ut! Now would n’t yer thought she’d ha’ put a thing like that under the table?”
And as the girls broke into suppressed titterings, “ Ach, go ’way wid ye, Biddy! ” the siren cried. “’T ain’t a patch on my new chapeau!” Susan’s heart contracted with
Susan’s heart contracted with a quick misgiving. So that was Biddy too, the dear little one who had remembered that she preferred chocolate! She hoped to goodness that that was not Ranny’s Biddy, — that honest little human girl with the sweet voice and the spirited, sensitive face! At mere thought of an antagonist like that, Susan’s dander dropped to zero.
“How many Biddys have you here?” she inquired, ostentatiously fumbling in her purse for change, while the little Biddy waited.
“Only one. I’m the only Biddy o’ the bunch.”
“But I thought they called that tail one Biddy.”
“Her? Oh, she’s Liddy.”
“And you are Biddy,” Susan repeated, still managing not to find that illusive coin. “And pray what is your other name ? ”
“ Molloy.” It fell on the ear like a note of music.
“Biddy Molloy. How pretty!” was the involuntary comment.
“Do you like ut ? Maybe ye’re Irish yerself ?”
“Well, it’s no disgrace,” quoth Biddy, with a little toss. The protest had been a thought too spontaneous.
“No, no. I did n’t mean it that way. But, don’t you think we all like to be what we really are ? Now, you would n’t want to be a Yankee girl; would you, my dear ? ”
“I use n’t to,” was the candid response. “But now” — and she sighed wistfully — “I don’t know.”
Then Susan knew, with a knowledge as different as possible from any fantastic theories of tall girls and competent sirens, that this was Ranny’s Biddy; and deeply dejected, yet curiously consoled, as well, she cashed her little ticket and went her ways.
To-morrow was Sunday, and when Ranny slipped away to his poor little fool’s paradise, he never guessed what solicitous and tender thoughts were following him. It was Indian summer weather, and Susan could fancy the two young people — how touchingly young they were! — rowing, up-river, where Mary Anne’s boys had once come upon them. All day long she was haunted by a picture of their little boat, passing under the willows, — Ranny at the oar, Biddy paddling an idle hand in the water. She saw it all as vividly as if she had been standing on the bank. She saw the reflection of the boat in the tranquil stream; in their faces the reflection of an honest, natural love, such as all young things have a right to, — a love that had come to flower in the sweet out-of-door life, in the sabbath stillness, or quickened and uplifted on the strains of great cathedral music. For Susan was imaginative, in her own homely way, and the casual touches in James’s report, which had passed unnoticed at the moment, fitted now into Ranny’s little love-story, as a tune will fit the verse it was written for.
As the beautiful Indian-summer day wore on, poor Susan, dramatic, sentimental, soft-hearted, hardly dared look her unsuspecting husband in the eye. And yet his counsel tallied closely with her own inclinations. For the thrifty man, only too ready to agree that this was no case for bribery and corruption, urged upon her the necessity of getting to know the girl better, of winning her confidence, and thus studying how best to circumvent her. And, contrary as this programme was to Susan’s frank nature, the initial steps at least were intimately alluring. On nothing was her heart so set, indeed, as upon getting to know Ranny’s Biddy.
The enterprise bade fair to be an easy one, for there was something about the child so alive, so expressive, so individual, that she could not set a plate of ice-cream before a customer without some small, unconscious revelation of herself. A trig little hand it was that performed the humble task, and nicely tended, too. Susan had a feeling for hands; her own were rather pudgy.
“Are your father and mother both Irish ? ” she asked, next day, vainly striving to feel herself the relentless inquisitor it was her business to be.
“Yes; they was Irish. But they’re both dead.”
“ Oh! ” Susan grieved, with instant sincerity. “When did they die?”
“Whin I was a baby.”
“You poor little thing! And who brought you up ? ”
“Are you living with her now?”
“No; she’s dead, too. But I gets along.” Clearly Biddy was not looking for pity.
“ How old were you when she died ?”
“Fifteen; big enough for a job. I’m seventeen, now,” she added, with the pardonable pride of maturity.
And, as question and answer fell, brief and incisive, Susan perceived that Biddy — the Biddy she must get to know — was already emerging, clear-cut as a little cameo.
“And before that you were at school ? ” she persisted.
“The last year I was takin’ care o’ me aunt.”
“She was ill all that time?”
“Yes; it was her heart.” And the girl’s voice dropped to a pitiful note as she added, “She suffered awful.”
“But you helped her bear the suffering,” said Susan warmly; and from that hour they were fast friends, — which did not help matters in the very least.
That Biddy had no lack of friends among her special customers, was patent to any observer. It gave Ranny’s mother a turn one day, when a great calf of a boy had the impudence to twitch the girl’s apron-string. But, “ None o’that,” laughed Biddy, serenely adjusting the loosened knot, “ or I ’ll have ye put out o’ this!” Whereupon the youngster blushed and grinned and looked a hundred foolish things.
That same afternoon, however, — it was only Tuesday, — Biddy showed another side, a new phase of that vivacious temperament which she had so well in hand. The tables were nearly all full, when the girl stepped up to an unprepossessing person in a “ sporty” necktie, and waited his order. The fellow’ saw fit to speak so low that Biddy was forced to bend her head, which she did with manifest repugnance. What he said was inaudible to Susan, keenly alert as always, but the effect was electric. Straightening up, the girl flashed back, “ I guess I ’m too busy to wait on you!”
As she turned away in tingling scorn, the competent siren, already come to seem as chimerical as her sisters of ancient lore, went sailing across the room, and took the discomfited gallant under her protection.
At last, on Thursday, — just one week it was, one anxious, futile, poignant week, from the day James put that fateful question about Ranny, — the professor was brought, much against his will, to expose himself to the seductions of icecream at an ungodly hour and, ostensibly at least to bring a trained mind to bear upon the situation. Did Susan have a sneaking hope that he too might succumb to Biddy’s artless charm, that he too might own himself baffled and at a loss ? If so, she had for once misread the open book that was her husband’s mind.
“ Well, dear, and how do you feel about it now ? ” she inquired anxiously, as they passed out into the busy city street, and wended their way to the horse-car, arm in arm, — an unblushing anachronism among the up-to-date populace.
“Feel about it!” he repeated, so gruffly that she could hardly credit her ears. “I feel that you’ve got to come to an understanding with that girl, and be quick about it too, or I’ll not answer for Ranny ! ” As if anybody had thought of answering for Ranny, by the way.
Then Susan knew that matters were serious, — that her husband was bracing himself to take a stand; and she trembled at thought of the consequences. For, like many another tractable man, the professor had his rare periods of mutiny, when he became irritable, dogmatic, yet fatally ineffective.
They were sitting, as usual at dusk, before the study fire, trying to look the Darby and Joan they could not feel tonight, when suddenly the professor broke the silence.
“Susan,” he declared, — and his tone was so accusatory that she felt her courage shrivel up as in a killing frost, — “Susan, you are in love with that girl, yourself! ”
It was her own conscience coming to speech on his lips, and she dared make no denial.
“ Perhaps I have been foolish, Randidge,” she faltered. “But the little thing is so pretty, and so plucky, and so alone ! ”
“Not so much alone as she had better be!” he asserted harshly; at which, conscience or no conscience, Susan was up in arms.
“Randidge,” she cried, “how can you be so unfeeling?”
“I’m not unfeeling,” he insisted, grown suddenly didactic and authoritative. “Quite the contrary; I am feeling deeply. But ray eyes are opened, and I see things as they are, — things that you, in your lamentable soft-heartedness, are unable to apprehend. I see that you are playing fast and loose with a very critical situation. Here is our son, our only son, exposed to one of the gravest dangers that can beset a young man on the threshold of life, — an ill-assorted marriage — marriage with a young person, —” Susan was holding her tongue by sheer force of will, recognizing the justice of her husband’s contention, recognizing her duty to Ranny, yet conscious of a climbing revolt that had nothing whatever to do with reason, — “marriage with a young person,” he was saying, “an ignorant, underbred young person, who would be a drag upon him all his life. And just because she has a pretty face and a taking way with her, — I will admit that I observed that trait in her myself, — but just because of these skin-deep attractions, you are weakly sacrificing your own child, his happiness for life, rather than take the most obvious measures for saving him.”
“No, Randidge,” Susan interposed, with a slow, fierce self-control. “If you want me to agree with you, you must put it differently.”
In the heat of conflict they had not heard the latch-key, nor the closing of the front door, — Ranny was always quiet in his movements, — nor were they aware of his approach, as he halted on the threshold, arrested by the tenor of their talk. This was his concern; he had a right to play the eavesdropper.
“I tell you, Susan,” the professor went pounding on, “she is a girl of low extraction, and has lived all her life in a demoralizing atmosphere. Working in a public restaurant of an evening, exposed even by day to such rudeness as you yourself described to me, — walking the street at midnight, subject to still worse affronts, living by herself, with no one to see to it that she leads a decent life —”
There was a menacing light in the eyes of the listener on the threshold, and his hands were clenched till the knuckles showed white, precisely as his mother’s were doing, over there in the firelight. But Susan broke in just in time,
“Stop, Randidge,” she cried peremptorily. “Stop just where you are! I’m ashamed of you! Yes, I’m ashamed of you! To throw it up against that brave young thing that she lives the life she is obliged to live, — the only life that is open to her, — with no one to protect her, no one to guide her, no one to love her! Has n’t she as good a right to all that as any other girl ? Has n’t she a warm heart, and a sweet soul, and the courage of a little soldier? Is n’t she witty, is n’t she kind, is n’t she good ? What more do you want in a young girl ? ”
“ But, Susan,” the poor man cried, vainly trying to stem the flood he had rashly let loose, “ her low origin, her lack of education! Why, she can’t even speak grammatically!”
“ Speak grammatically! ” Susan retorted, ruthlessly pouncing on the anticlimax. “Neither did my grandmother Pratt speak grammatically; and that’s why we remember what she said! There was some flavor to her sayings! What’s the good of everybody talking just alike, as if we were a lot of poll-parrots, huddled together in one cage ? And what are we, anyway, you and I? I’ve never heard of any coronets hanging on our family trees, nor any laurel wreaths either! What’s my family? What’s yours?” And now Susan had slipped the moorings of a lifetime. “ You were nothing but a farmer’s boy, with your own way to make, and that’s exactly what Biddy’s father was in the old country! What have all the women of my family done, more than love their husbands, and bring up their children the best they knew how ?
I’d like to have you show me a sweeter, better girl than our Ranny’s little Biddy, to do just that!”
It broke like a great sob across her words, and as the professor looked around, dazed and defeated, there were Ranny and his mother, locked in each other’s arms, as it were, carved out of a single block, Rodin-fashion; only there was n’t any Rodin in those days, that anybody ever heard of.
Susan was the first to break that rapturous spell.
“Oh, what have I done?” she cried, as one who wakes from a bewildering dream.
“Done!” the professor echoed, settling back in his chair, and thanking Heaven that it had not been his doing.
But in Ranny’s face was the look she had seen but once, and this time it was all for his mother.