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- The Iron Woman - 1/87 -


THE IRON WOMAN

BY

MARGARET DELAND

"_This was the iniquity ... fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness...._"--EZEKIEL, xvi., 49

TO MY

PATIENT, RUTHLESS, INSPIRING CRITIC LORIN DELAND

August 12, 1911

ILLUSTRATIONS

"LOOK!" "BLAIR IS IN LOVE WITH ME!" "I THINK YOU ARE REASONABLE ENOUGH FOR BOTH OF US" "ELIZABETH, MARRY ME!" "OF COURSE YOU KNOW MY OPINION OF YOU" SHE WHEELED ABOUT, AND STOOD, SWAYING WITH FRIGHT "WILL YOU LIVE? WILL YOU GIVE ME LIFE?" CLUTCHING HER SHOULDER, SHE LOOKED HARD INTO THE YOUNGER WOMAN'S FACE

THE IRON WOMAN

CHAPTER I

"Climb up in this tree, and play house!" Elizabeth Ferguson commanded. She herself had climbed to the lowest branch of an apple-tree in the Maitland orchard, and sat there, swinging her white-stockinged legs so recklessly that the three children whom she had summoned to her side, backed away for safety. "If you don't," she said, looking down at them, "I'm afraid, perhaps, maybe, I'll get mad."

Her foreboding was tempered by a giggle and by the deepening dimple in her cheek, but all the same she sighed with a sort of impersonal regret at the prospect of any unpleasantness. "It would be too bad if I got mad, wouldn't it?" she said thoughtfully. The others looked at one another in consternation. They knew so well what it meant to have Elizabeth "mad," that Nannie Maitland, the oldest of the little group, said at once, helplessly, "Well."

Nannie was always helpless with Elizabeth, just as she was helpless with her half-brother, Blair, though she was ten and Elizabeth and Blair were only eight; but how could a little girl like Nannie be anything but helpless before a brother whom she adored, and a wonderful being like Elizabeth?--Elizabeth! who always knew exactly what she wanted to do, and who instantly "got mad," if you wouldn't say you'd do it, too; got mad, and then repented, and hugged you and kissed you, and actually cried (or got mad again), if you refused to accept as a sign of your forgiveness her new slate-pencil, decorated with strips of red- and-white paper just like a little barber's pole! No wonder Nannie, timid and good-natured, was helpless before such a sweet, furious little creature! Blair had more backbone than his sister, but even he felt Elizabeth's heel upon his neck. David Richie, a silent, candid, very stubborn small boy, was, after a momentary struggle, as meek as the rest of them. Now, when she commanded them all to climb, it was David who demurred, because, he said, he spoke first for Indians tomahawking you in the back parlor.

"Very well!" said the despot; "play your old Indians! I'll never speak to any of you again as long as I live!"

"I've got on my new pants," David objected.

"Take 'em off!" said Elizabeth. And there is no knowing what might have happened if the decorous Nannie had not come to the rescue.

"That's not proper to do out-of-doors; and Miss White says not to say 'pants.'"

Elizabeth looked thoughtful. "Maybe it isn't proper," she admitted; "but David, honest, I took a hate to being tommy-hocked the last time we played it; so please, _dear_ David! If you'll play house in the tree, I'll give you a piece of my taffy." She took a little sticky package out of her pocket and licked her lips to indicate its contents;--David yielded, shinning up the trunk of the tree, indifferent to the trousers, which had been on his mind ever since he had put them on his legs.

Blair followed him, but Nannie squatted on the ground content to merely look at the courageous three.

"Come on up," said Elizabeth. Nannie shook her little blond head. At which the others burst into a shrill chorus: "'Fraid-cat! 'fraid-cat! 'fraid-cat!" Nannie smiled placidly; it never occurred to her to deny such an obviously truthful title. "Blair," she said, continuing a conversation interrupted by Elizabeth's determination to climb, "Blair, _why_ do you say things that make Mamma mad? What's the sense? If it makes her mad for you to say things are ugly, why do you?"

"'Cause," Blair said briefly. Even at eight Blair disliked both explanations and decisions, and his slave and half-sister rarely pressed for either. With the exception of his mother, whose absorption in business had never given her time to get acquainted with him, most of the people about Blair were his slaves. Elizabeth's governess, Miss White--called by Elizabeth, for reasons of her own, "Cherry-pie"--had completely surrendered to his brown eyes; the men in the Maitland Works toadied to him; David Richie blustered, perhaps, but always gave in to him; in his own home, Harris, who was a cross between a butler and a maid-of-all-work, adored him to the point of letting him make candy on the kitchen stove--probably the greatest expression of affection possible to the kitchen; in fact, little Elizabeth Ferguson was the only person in his world who did not knuckle down to this pleasant and lovable child. But then, Elizabeth never knuckled down to anybody! Certainly not to kind old Cherry- pie, whose timid upper lip quivered like a rabbit's when she was obliged to repeat to her darling some new rule of Robert Ferguson's for his niece's upbringing; nor did she knuckle down to her uncle;--she even declared she was not at all afraid of him! This was almost unbelievable to the others, who scattered like robins if they heard his step. And she had greater courage than this; she had, in fact, audacity! for she said she was willing--this the others told each other in awed tones--she said she had "just as lieves" walk right up and speak to Mrs. Maitland herself, and ask her for twenty cents so she could treat the whole crowd to ice-cream! That is, she would just as lieves, _if she should happen to want to_. Now, as she sat in the apple-tree swinging her legs and sharing her taffy, it occurred to her to mention, apropos of nothing, her opinion of Mrs. Maitland's looks:

"I like Blair's mother best; but David's mother is prettier than Blair's mother."

"It isn't polite to brag on mothers," said David, surveying his new trousers complacently, "but I know what I think."

Blair, jouncing up and down on his branch, agreed with unoffended candor. "'Course she's prettier. Anybody is. Mother's ugly."

"It isn't right to say things like that out of the family," Nannie observed.

"This _is_ the family. You're going to marry David, and I'm going to marry Elizabeth. And I'm going to be awfully rich; and I'll give all you children a lot of money. Jimmy Sullivan--he's a friend of mine; I got acquainted with him yesterday, and he's the biggest puddler in our Works. Jimmie said, 'You're the only son,' he said, 'you'll get it all.' 'Course I told him I'd give him some," said Blair.

At this moment Elizabeth was moved to catch David round the neck, and give him a loud kiss on his left ear. David sighed. "You may kiss me," he said patiently; "but I'd rather you'd tell me when you want to. You knocked off my cap."

"Say, David," Nannie said, flinging his cap up to him, "Blair can stand on his head and count five. You can't."

At this David's usual admiration for Blair suffered an eclipse; he grew very red, then exploded: "I--I--I've had mumps, and I have two warts, and Blair hasn't. And I have a real dining-room at my house, and Blair hasn't!"

Nannie flew to the rescue: "You haven't got a real mother. You are only an adopted."

"Well, what are you?" David said, angrily; "you're nothing but a Step."

"I haven't got any kind of a mother," Elizabeth said, with complacent melancholy.

"Stop fighting," Blair commanded amiably; "David is right; we have a pigsty of a dining-room at our house." He paused to bend over and touch with an ecstatic finger a flake of lichen covering with its serpent green the damp, black bark in the crotch of the old tree. "Isn't that pretty?" he said.

"You ought not to say things about our house," Nannie reproved him. As Blair used to say when he grew up, "Nannie was born proper."

"Why not?" said Blair. "They know everything is ugly at our house. They've got real dining-rooms at their houses; they don't have old desks round, the way we do."


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