IT WAS too early in the season for lowered shades or closed shutters. The spring sunshine had taken possession of the big, many-windowed room, repaying the hospitality as other uninvited guests have been known to do, by its indiscreet revelations. In rooms much lived in, a rather endearing shabbiness is a familiar characteristic, suggestive, like a thumbed book, of homely comfort. The room in question had passed this stage and reached the shabbiness eloquent of poverty.
The paper on the walls was faded, and stained from a leak in the roof. The original carpet had been transformed into a rug that shrank annually and now showed threadbare areas, prophetic of gaping holes in the near future. The furniture, too,
though of expensive make, had arrived at a point where a series of surgical operations seemed imperative. Yet with it all, a certain plucky defiance was evident in the shabby room. Pictures or calendars hung over the discolored spots on the wall, furniture arranged to conceal the weak spots of the carpet, a crocheted shawl thrown carelessly over the exposed entrails of a veteran armchair, a general air of putting the best foot foremost inevitably suggested that the dilapidated building sheltered youth, ardent and unconquered.
In the smallest chair the room contained, a rocking chair that creaked protestingly under its light burden, sat Miss Zaida Finch, darning a pink silk stocking. Miss Finch’s print dress modestly concealed her diminutive lower limbs, her extremely small shoes scarcely peeping from beneath its hem. For all that the eye discerned, her anatomical structure might have been modeled after that of Mrs. Shem in a Noah’s ark. Yet with no evidence to substantiate his certainty, any observer would have vowed that Miss Finch’s painstaking toil was wholly disinterested. It was impossible to believe that the much-mended pink silk hosiery formed part of her wardrobe.
The industry of Miss Finch was spasmodic. One moment she plied her needle with an intentness indicating that her task absorbed her. And again she let the stocking drop into her lap, and lost herself listening to sounds overhead, footsteps, doors opening and closing, the murmur of voices. Once, rising, she tiptoed to the window and gazed for a long breathless moment at the touring car before the gate, the chauffeur puffing a cigarette with an arrogance characteristic of the driver of a seven-passenger Packard, who knows that at any moment a Ford roadster may round the curve ahead.
Despite occasional lapses Miss Finch was darning industriously when the voices overhead sharpened noticeably. A light staccato of high heels tapping the uncarpeted staircase was followed by the slamming of a door violently enough to shake the building. Miss Finch, groping vainly for the interpretation of these sounds, found her gaze drawn to the window as the Packard swept along the highway, its horn bleating an impassioned farewell.
The door at the rear of Miss Finch’s chair opened emphatically, with such emphasis indeed, that the door-knobs parted company, one falling into the hall, the other projecting itself in the direction of
Miss Finch as if with hostile intent. And close upon this demonstration a girl entered the room and flung herself into one of the ragged armchairs.
The owner of the pink silk stocking was revealed. It was all in keeping with her audacious color scheme. Her hair was obviously red, and instead of modestly disguising the fact, it used every known artifice to attract attention to itself, curling and crinkling and brazenly thrusting out tendril-like locks to catch the beholder’s gaze. Her eyes should have been blue, according to all precedent, but instead they matched her hair, a daring reddish-brown, with yellow flecks like floating gold-leaf. Ordinarily her skin was creamy till the multiplying freckles of summer temporarily disguised its fairness, but at this moment some intense emotion dyed her crimson from her throat to the roots of her hair. Over a blue house dress she wore a sweater of vivid green, assumed, if the truth be told, not for the sake of warmth but to conceal her patched elbows. Her entrance into the room accentuated its faded dinginess and bleached Miss Finch to the color of ashes. Even the spring sunshine paled before her rainbow effect.
«Well, Fritz!» The girl used the incongruous
nickname with the carelessness of long custom. «It’s all over.»
«All over!» Miss Finch echoed in alarm. The darning egg dropped from her lap and spun dizzily upon the floor, while its owner blinked rapidly as if the radiant presence in the armchair dazzled her eyes.
«Yes. That was Mrs. Leavett, the one who saw my advertisement in the Onlooker, and wrote and engaged board for herself and two children.»
Miss Finch rolled her eyes heavenward. Under the matter-of-fact statement she scented calamity.
«It occurred to her that she’d like to see the place before she came. And now she’s seen it, she’s not coming. She says my ad was misleading.»
«It was a very good advertisement, I’m sure,» protested Miss Finch. «I didn’t know myself how pleasant the place was till you read me what you’d written.»
The girl laughed out. The naive defense had the effect of partly dissipating her anger and bringing an evasive dimple into view.
«I leave it to you, Fritz, if I told a single whopper. I said the rooms were large and airy, and I didn’t state that the paper was peeling off the walls.
I mentioned the lawn and the shade trees, and failed to add that the house needed painting. It is not the business of the seller, Fritzie dear, to call attention to any little defects in the article he is trying to dispose of. Mrs. Leavett overlooked that point. Not a business woman, evidently.»
«The vines cover a good bit of the house anyway,» commented Miss Finch resentfully. «What does a little paint more or less matter to a summer boarder?»
«Mrs. Leavett seemed under the impression that it mattered to her. She was so very snippy that at last I asked her if she didn’t think that to be unpainted in these days was rather a mark of distinction. Since you didn’t see the lady, Fritz, you can hardly appreciate the insinuating cleverness of that inquiry. The red, red rose has nothing on her. Such a lovely, fast-color carmine, warranted to go through a fainting fit without fading.»
«If you’re going to have boarders, Agatha,» Miss Finch remonstrated, «you’ve got to keep a tight rein on your temper.»
«I did, Fritz; I was preternaturally amiable till I saw that the game was up. Then I thought I might as well relieve my feelings. The woman seemed to
take it as an affront that I wasn’t my own grandmother. She said for a girl of my age to advertise for boarders was a piece of presumption, and she wanted to know if I didn’t have a guardian—as if I were weak-minded.»
Miss Finch’s contemptuous sniff breathed sympathetic scorn.
«I’m not ashamed of being only nineteen. Everybody has to be nineteen some time, except the people who die in infancy. As I said to Mrs. Leavett, if you’re too young, time will mend it. But being too old isn’t so easily remedied.»
«Was she old?» inquired Miss Finch suspiciously.
«Older than she wants any one to think, Fritz. She’s the sort of woman who talks about her little son when he’s a sophomore in college, smoking an enormous meerschaum.» Agatha’s angry color had subsided to a becoming pink, and her eyes were luminous with mischief. «I’m going to try the frank, open style in ads, since the other doesn’t seem to work. I shall want your opinion on it, Fritz, so prepare to give me your undivided attention.» She flitted to the writing desk and began scribbling on the back of a convenient envelope and Miss Finch utilized the pause to recover her elusive darning egg,
dropping her thimble in the process. Before she could capture the latter runaway, Agatha was ready for her services as critic.
«Boarders wanted. A spinster aged nineteen, of uncertain temper, will accommodate a limited number of boarders at her country place, Oak Knoll. Rooms large and airy, special ventilation secured through openings in the roof. In case of rain, guests will be furnished with tubs to catch the drippings, without extra charge. Fine lawn kept in excellent order by the untiring efforts of two horses and a cow. View unsurpassed. Meals excellent provided the cook is kept in good humor by considerate treatment.»
She nipped the handle of her pen reflectively. «Do you think it necessary to mention that the cook and the proprietor are one and the same?»
«Agatha,» cried Miss Finch with the agonized earnestness of a literal mind, «you mustn’t think of sending that to the paper. Taking boarders is a good deal like getting married. There’s a whole lot you’ve got to keep dark, or you might as well give up first as last.»
Her outburst terminated in a sniff. Immediately the tip of her pale, seemingly bloodless little nose became as red as a cherry, the instantaneous sequel of tears, with Miss Finch.
«You’re so smart, Agatha,» she quavered. «If only you’d sell this house and wash your hands of Howard and me, who haven’t the least claim on you, you could go to the city and look around and like enough find a husband. There’s plenty of men who don’t mind red hair.»
Agatha ignored the encouragement. «Howard is my brother.»
«Just like children pretend in play. He’s your stepma’s son. There’s not a drop of Kent blood in him, and not a mite of Sheldon in you. But instead of giving your mind to getting married like a girl needs to do in these days, you’re all the time worrying about educating that boy.»
«I’m going to send Howard to college if I live, I’d rather do that than have twenty husbands.»
«Then if that wasn’t enough,» lamented Miss Finch tearfully, «here I am, a good-for-nothing cumberer of the ground, for you to fuss and plan for. Don’t tell me! All the reason you keep this place is to have a home for me and Howard. And it ain’t right or fair.»
Agatha crumpled the advertisement inspired by the visit of Mrs. Leavett into an inky wad, and took aim at the spider-like blotch on the ceiling. Then
crossing the room swiftly, she hugged the limp little woman to her heart.
«You’ll make me cry myself if you’re not careful. You want to deprive me of my family and my chaperon at one swoop, and turn me out into the world a solitary orphan, you heartless creature.» She silenced Miss Finch’s gurgled protests with a kiss. «Hush!» she said authoritatively. «There comes Howard on the pony. He mustn’t know anything about this.»
The beat of hoofs ceased abruptly and a boy’s swinging step sounded on the porch. To save the trouble of walking ten feet to the door, Howard raised the nearest window of the living-room, and made an unconventional entry. He was a handsome lad of sixteen, and Agatha’s idol. She had been as ready as most young girls to resent her father’s second marriage, but all her childish hostility vanished at the sequel, the chubby little boy who was her stepmother’s contribution to the family circle. She had longed for a brother with the passionate yearning of a lonely child, and just when she had given up hope, a brother was hers. Agatha’s sense of proprietorship had grown with the years. Nothing irritated her more than the suggestion that
the tie between Howard and herself was less binding than that of blood.
The boy drew three letters from his pocket, slapping them down on the table.
«You’re getting to be pretty popular, Aggie. Every time I go to the village there’s mail for you. Two letters yesterday and three to-day.»
«How warm you look, Howard.» Agatha pushed the boy’s heavy hair back from his moist forehead. «You mustn’t get overheated and take cold.» She was deliciously maternal in her solicitude for the sturdy youngster who already topped her by an inch or two.
«I’ll look warmer before the day’s over. I’m going to tackle the garden now. If you’d ever seen summer boarders eat new green peas you’d know ’twas time to get busy.»
Howard departed as he had come, and his sister, her face overcast, gave her attention to her mail. The first letter opened was flung petulantly to the floor.
«Woman wants to know how many bathrooms we have, and will I please send her the names of several former patrons as references. Worse than Mrs. Leavett.»
«They’re an unreasonable lot, summer boarders,» acquiesced Miss Finch.
The second letter was as unsatisfactory, judging from the impetuosity of its flight across the room.
«She’s the widow of a missionary and wants board at half rates, and the younger children not to count.»
«I don’t believe you’ve got the temper for running a boarding-house,» commented Miss Finch. «You’re as fiery as red pepper and next to the married state, keeping boarders calls for a saintly disposition.»
Agatha prying open the third communication with a hairpin, vouchsafed no reply. But her perturbed air changed magically to breathless attention. Her eyes moved slowly down the typewritten page, her air of stupefaction increasingly in evidence. Checking herself with an impatient gesture, she started again at the beginning and read the letter aloud:
«‘My Dear Miss Kent:
«‘My attention has just been called to your advertisement in the current Onlooker. I can hardly hope that you remember me, for it is over twenty years since our last meeting, and at that time I was an insignificant urchin of twelve—'»
«Over twenty years,» Miss Finch interjected, «and you nineteen last week.»
«‘I remember you distinctly, however, and your beautiful old place with its fine grounds and noble trees. When I explain that I am the son of John Forbes you will understand that my visit with my father was a memorable occasion. He died soon after, as you remember, but he often spoke of our week at Oak Knoll and his affectionate admiration for yourself.'»
A flicker of understanding illumined Miss Finch’s blank face.
«I’m beginning to see daylight,» she interrupted. «The man’s fooled by the likeness of names. He thinks he’s writing to your great-aunt, Agatha Kent. She’d be between sixty and seventy if she were living.»
Agatha had already solved the puzzle. She nodded and read on, too interested to pause for discussion:
«‘I have played in rather hard luck recently. I contracted a severe form of malaria in my South American trip last year which has resulted, strangely enough, in a loss of eyesight, only temporary, the doctors hope. For six months I have gone about with my eyes bandaged. At present the building up of my general health seems the most important step in my recovery and I wish to secure board in some retired country place with a bracing climate, like that of Bridgewater.
«‘In case you were willing to burden yourself
with a blind boarder, I should, of course, insist on paying more than the moderate rates mentioned in your ad. I should also wish to engage the services of some youth in the neighborhood who could serve as valet and companion. I could bring an attendant from the city but would prefer a country boy, who would not be continually pining for roof gardens and like diversions. His work will be exacting, of course, for no child is as helpless as I, but I will pay well in addition to his board and will try to make his labors as agreeable as possible.
«‘I have written at length because I wish you to understand just what you are letting yourself in for, if you admit me to Oak Knoll. The remembrance of your benevolent face which even to my unobservant boy self seemed to express your kindly nature, is my only reason for thinking that possibly your answer will be favorable.
«‘Yours very truly,
Mechanically Agatha folded the letter and returned it to its envelope. She spoke in a rapturous half whisper. «A blind man. If it had been planned on purpose, it couldn’t have been more perfect. Please don’t tell me I’m dreaming, Fritz.»
Miss Finch rubbed her nose fretfully, a sign of perturbation. «Have you thought—»
«He can’t see that the paper is peeling off the wall,» Agatha continued ecstatically. «But he’ll ap
preciate the rooms being large and airy. He won’t worry because the house needs painting, but he can enjoy sitting under the shade of the trees. I can even feed him fried chicken while the rest of us are eating cod-fish gravy. It’s an interposition of Providence.»
Miss Finch was hectoring her nose again. «But how are you going to manage—»
«He wants a boy as an attendant,» persisted Agatha jubilantly. «Howard is the boy. He’ll pay him well, and pay me for his board. If only I’m not delirious. Oh, I want to jump and scream. Howard’s next year in school is all provided for. And if Mr. What’s-his-name would only stay blind till—»
«I guess you’re forgetting one thing.» Miss Finch raised her voice challengingly. «You ain’t your great-aunt.»
Agatha regarded the interruption with irritation. «Well!»
«It’s her he wants to board with. He imagines she’s a nice, motherly old soul, who’ll pet him up and feed him up. It ain’t likely he’d think of engaging board with a flighty young girl. I don’t say
you’re not as competent as though you were sixty. But he wouldn’t believe it.»
The glow illuminating the girl’s face flickered defiantly under this chilling blast of common sense, and went out, like a candle in the wind. She drew her arched brows into a meditative pucker and sat musing while Miss Finch, humanly complacent over having suggested a difficulty, gave her whole attention to her darning, leaving Agatha to wrestle with the solution.
«Fritz,» the girl breathed at last, «do you believe in reincarnation?»
Miss Finch tried to look as if she understood the meaning of the word. With an adroitness for which few would have given her credit, she replied, «I won’t say I do, and I won’t say I don’t.»
«Well, it’s true, Fritz. I am my own great-aunt.»
«Land alive!» cried Miss Finch, startled into close attention.
«Mr. Burton Forbes wants to engage board for the summer with Miss Agatha Kent. Well, I’m Agatha Kent. He imagines that I’m a nice comfortable old lady with white hair and a double chin. Very well. It would be a hard heart that would disappoint a blind man in such a trifle.»
«You mean,» gasped Miss Finch, «that you’re going to deceive him?»
«Heaven forbid. But I’m not going to undeceive him, Fritz. He assumed certain things about me. Let him keep his illusions, poor soul. He’ll spend a happy summer with his father’s old friend, and then go away and recover, I hope.»
No trace of Agatha’s shadowing perplexity remained. Her eyes had the mischievous brightness of a naughty child’s. Miss Finch gazed aghast.
«He’s bound to find out sooner or later. And no good comes of cheating anybody, least of all a blind man.»
«You’re not the stuff for a conspirator, I can see that,» Agatha laughed. «You look positively frightened. But Howard will be delighted. He’ll feel like the hero of a detective story.»
The window by which her brother had made his exit was still open and Agatha took her departure in the same informal fashion. But little Miss Finch sat bowed in her chair, as if the responsibility for this newly hatched plot rested upon her narrow shoulders, and crushed her under its weight.
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