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- A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill - 20/51 -
next of kin with such chilling contempt that he decided to change his tactics.
"Honest, now, Sis, I never come to beg for nothin'. What I really come for was to tell you 'bout our good luck."
This move was so adroit that it caught Myrtella unawares, and elicited a faint show of curiosity. "We never knowed it 'til last week," Phineas proceeded mysteriously, "an' we ain't mentioned it to nobody 'til we git a parlor fitted up an' a sign painted."
"Fer see-ances! There's been a Dago doctor, calls himself Professor King, hangin' 'round the Hill, an' the minute he lays eyes on Maria Flathers he seen she was a mejium. He give her four lessons fer a dollar, an' she begin to hear raps an' bells ringin' the fifth settin'. Last night she begin to move the furniture."
"She must 'a' been in a trance!" exclaimed Myrtella. "I been knowin' Maria about fourteen years an' I never heard of her movin' the furniture. She can go to more pains to scrub around a table leg than any one I ever knowed."
But in spite of her scoffing, Myrtella was impressed. For many years she had considered a visit to a spiritualist, or clairvoyant, one of her wildest and most extravagant dissipations. The possibility of having a medium in the family was a luxury not to be lightly dismissed.
"Where'd you git the money fer the lessons?" she demanded suddenly.
Phineas hesitated and was lost.
"You spent Chick's! He's as ragged as a scarecrow. Looks like he don't get enough food to push his ribs out. I ketch you spendin' the money I give him on sperrits, livin' or dead, an' I'll never give you another cent!"
"Now, Sis, hold on! You didn't lemme finish. I'm thinkin' some of running a undertaker's business, along in conjunction with the see- ances. We could keep tab on the customers then, and build up a good trade. All on earth we need is just a little capital, an' we'd be a self-supportin' couple inside a week."
So convincing were Phineas' arguments, that in the end Myrtella consented to act as _deus ex machina_ for the new psychical venture, on condition that Chick should be properly clothed, and fed, and made to go to school.
This agreement having been arrived at, Myrtella reached for her broom, and began such a vigorous attack on the steps, that Flathers was forced to conclude that his presence could be cheerfully dispensed with. He gathered himself up, slapped his hat on the side of his head, tucked his Bible under his arm, and made a sweeping bow.
"Fare thee well, my own true love. Bring the money Saturday night, an' Maria'll wind up the sperrits an' let 'em manifest fer you, free of charge. Sorry I can't wait fer that molasses candy to git done. You might send me some by Chick. Adiew!"
Myrtella stood, broom in hand, and watched the loose-jointed figure slouch down the pavement and out the back gate. He was cheerfully whistling the doxology, and his face wore the rapt expression of one whose thoughts are not on earthly things. She sighed and shook her head.
"Front door bell's ringing," called Bertie, "so's the telephone, and Father's gone out and says you can clean his study. There's the bell again."
"I expect it's Mr. Gooch inviting himself to supper. I ain't goin' to let him in. Give me that there plate to pour the candy in."
"Look, 'Telia, what Chick traded me!"
Myrtella cast a side glance at Bertie's extended palm, and promptly rescinded the deal.
"Ain't you ashamed of yourself, Chick Flathers! Tradin' a little fellow's fine marbles fer them comman allies? It's cheatin', that's what it is, it's stealin'! Ain't you ashamed?"
Chick _was_ ashamed and had the grace to show it. His contrition would probably not have developed except through exposure, but standing before Myrtella's accusing glance, and the surprised, hurt look in Bertie's eyes, his hardened conscience was pricked, and his lip began to tremble.
With a fierce gesture of protection Myrtella pulled him to her:
"Don't, Chick! Don't cry! I wasn't meanin' to scold you. You ain't had a chance like other boys. You never had no playthings, you never had nothin'. You was a poor little abandoned child ever since you was born. Oh! God, I'm a wicked woman! I ain't fit to live on the earth!"
This amazing outburst so stunned the two small boys, that they stood looking at her in open-eyed astonishment. For some moments she swayed to and fro with her apron over her head, then savagely dried her eyes, and, bidding them follow her, stalked up the back stairs with broom and dust pan.
Doctor Queerington's study was at the top of the house, where by means of closing the doors and windows, and stuffing his ears with cotton, he was able to shut out that material world to which he preferred to remain a stranger. The room was filled from floor to ceiling with books, and it was one of the crosses of Myrtella's life that behind the visible rows of volumes, stood other rows, forming a sort of submerged library beyond the reach of her cloth and duster.
In no room in the house did she feel her importance more fully than in this inner shrine. She had calculated with mathematical precision the exact position of each of the Doctor's desk utensils, she knew the divinity that hedged about a manuscript, and the inviolable nature of bookmarks.
When Bertie began fingering the inkstand, she pounced upon him.
"Don't you dare touch a thing, either one of you! When the Doctor told me to take charge of his things, I took it. There ain't ever been a word of complaint since I come here, and I ain't goin' to have one at this here late date. There's the Doctor now comin' up the steps; I'll finish up here later. Get away from there, Chick!"
But Chick had made a discovery. On the Doctor's desk, smiling out from a porcelain frame, he had found his divinity! It was the beautiful young lady who had once taken his part in a fight with Skeeter Sheeley over a whip handle; it was the young lady who always smiled at him when she rode by Billy-goat Hill; it was she who had changed his life ambition from grand larceny to plumbing! Heedless of warning he snatched at the picture, and as he did so it slipped from his fingers and the frame shattered on the floor.
Doctor Queerington, at the doorway, took in the situation at a glance. He looked quickly from Myrtella's horrified face to the cringing figure of the strange child, then he smiled reassuringly.
"There is no serious harm done," he said in a quiet, pleasant voice; "the frame can be easily replaced, and as for the photograph--" he paused and smiled again, then he drew Bertie's hand into his; "Myrtella, I shall no longer have need of a photograph of that young lady. She has consented to come herself and take charge of us all."
Myrtella stood as one petrified; her massive figure with its upraised duster was silhoueted against the light, like a statue of the goddess of war. At last she found voice:
"To take charge?" she gasped. "Do you mean she's comin' to be Mis' Squeerington?"
"Well, I give notice," announced Myrtella with all the dignity of offended majesty, and shoving Chick before her, she slammed the door upon the astonished Doctor and stalked haughtily down the stairs.
"A bride who doesn't see her duty, should be _made_ to see it," declared Mrs. Sequin to Mrs. Ivy in her most impressive manner." Something is naturally expected of the wife of John Jay Queerington. I told her expressly that Friday was her day, I even telephoned to remind her, and here it is four o'clock, and people beginning to come, and she off playing tennis!"
They were waiting in the twilight of the Queerington parlor, that plain, stiff, old maid of a parlor that had sprung completely furnished from the brain of a decorator some two decades before and never blinked an eyelid since. It was a room with which no one had ever taken liberties. Hattie had once petulantly remarked that her father would as soon have moved a tooth from his lower to his upper jaw, as to have moved an ornament or picture from the parlor to the second floor.
Mrs. Ivy, the lady addressed, smiled tolerantly. It was one of Mrs. Ivy's most irritating characteristics that she was always tolerant of other people's annoyances. She was blond and plump, and wore a modified toga and a crystallized smile.
"Ah! Mrs. Sequin," she purred, "our little bride is a child of Nature. Sweetness and light! We must not expect too much of her at first. My Gerald says she's like a wild little waterfall dancing in the sun, undammed by conventions. Gerald phrases things so perfectly."
"Well, I've had enough of trying to manage a waterfall!" Mrs. Sequin said grimly. "Cousin John asked me to take her in hand, and I must say I am finding her difficult. Perfectly sweet and good natured, you know, but she goes right on her own way. She has decided that she likes Connie's friends better than the Doctor's, that her hair doesn't feel right arranged the way it should be, that she isn't going to wear dresses made by fashionable dressmakers because they are uncomfortable. She actually told me she liked to be a few minutes out of style!"
"But isn't she right?" murmured Mrs. Ivy. "God has given her a graceful, symmetrical body, shouldn't she clothe it in flowing robes
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