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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 28
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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 28 Post by :Follower Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :934

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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 28

Chapter XXVIII

During the progress of the tea at the Andersons' Eddy kept furtively glancing at his sister with an expression which signified congratulation.

"Ain't you glad you stayed?" the expression said, quite plainly.

"Did you ever have such nice things to eat? And only think what a snippy meal we should have had at home!"

Charlotte met the first of the glances with a covertly chiding look and an imperceptible shake of her head; then she refused to meet them, keeping her eyes away from her exultant brother. She herself was actually hungry, poor child, for the truth was that for the last few days it had been somewhat short commons at the Carrolls', and Charlotte was one of the sort who, under such circumstances, are seized with a sudden loss of appetite. She had really eaten very little for some hours, and now, in spite of a curious embarrassment and agitation, which under ordinary circumstances would have lessened her desire for food, she herself ate eagerly. The meal was both dainty and abundant. Mrs. Anderson had always prided herself upon the meals she set before guests. There was always in the house a store of sweets to be drawn from on such occasions, and while Anderson had been binding up Eddy's wound, the maid had been sent to the market for a chicken to supplement the beefsteak which had been intended for the family supper. So there was fried chicken and celery salad, and the most wonderful cream biscuits, and fruit and pound cake, and quince preserves--quarters of delectable, long-drawn-out flavor in a rosy jelly--and tea and thick cream and loaf-sugar in the old, solid service with its squat pieces finished with beading. Eddy gloated over it all openly. He fairly forgot his manners, for, after all, he was, although in a desultory sort of way, a well-bred boy. The Carrolls, as far as their manners went, were gentlefolk, and came of a long line of gentlefolk. But it happened that the china which had come to them from their forebears had for the most part been broken in the course of their wanderings from place to place, and in its place was an ornate and rather costly, and unpaid-for, set. Eddy now quite openly lifted the saucer of thin, pink-and-gold china, in which his teacup rested, and held it to the light.

"Whew, ain't it thin?" he ejaculated.

"Why, Eddy!" Charlotte cried, flushing with dismay.

"I don't care. It is awful thin," persisted the boy. He held the saucer before his eyes. "I can see you through it; yes, I can," said he.

But Mrs. Anderson, although her old-fashioned ideas of the decorous behavior due from children at table were somewhat offended, and she later told her son that it did seem to her that the boy must have been somewhat neglected, was yet very susceptible to flattery of those teacups, which had descended to her from her own mother, and which she had always regarded as superior to any of the Anderson family china, of which there was quite a store. So she merely smiled and remarked gently that the china was very old, and she believed quite rare, and it was, indeed, unusually thin, yet not a piece of the original set had been broken.

"Why didn't we have china like this instead of that we have?" demanded Eddy of Charlotte.

"Hush, dear," said Charlotte. "This china is so very old and valuable, you know, that not every one could--that we could not-- I believe we had some very pretty china in our family, but it all got broken," she added.

"It didn't begin to be so pretty as this," said Eddy. "I remember it. The cups were like bowls, and there were black wreaths around them. There weren't any handles, either. I don't see why we couldn't have got some china as pretty as this. Suppose it was valuable. Why, I don't believe that we have now is paid for. What difference would it make?"

Charlotte blushed so that Mrs. Anderson felt an impulse to draw the poor, little, troubled head upon her shoulder and tell her not to mind.

"Let me give you some more of the quince preserve, dear," she said, in the softest voice; and Charlotte, who did not want it, passed her little glass dish to take advantage of the opportunity afforded her to cover her confusion.

"What difference would it make, say, Charlotte?" persisted Eddy.

"Hush, dear," said Charlotte, painfully.

"Here, son, pass your plate for this chicken," said Anderson; and Eddy, with a shrewd glance of half-comprehension from one to the other, passed his plate and subsided, after a muttered remark that he didn't see why Charlotte minded.

"Wasn't that a bully supper?" he whispered, pressing close to his sister when they entered the sitting-room after the meal was finished.

"Hush, dear," she whispered back.

"Ain't you glad you stayed? You wouldn't, if it hadn't been for me."

Charlotte turned and looked at him sharply. Mrs. Anderson had lingered in the dining-room to give some directions to the maid, and Anderson had stepped out on the porch for a second's puff at a cigar.

"Eddy Carroll," said she, in a whisper, "you didn't?"

Eddy faced her defiantly. "Didn't what?"

"You didn't tell a lie about that?"

Eddy lowered his eyes, frowned, and scraped one foot in a way he had when embarrassed. "Amy did say something about it was such a pleasant day and Addison," he replied, doggedly.

"But did she say they were really going there, and would not be back?"

"Anna said if they went there they could not get back."

"But did she say they were going? Tell me the truth, Eddy Carroll."

Eddy scraped.

"I see they did not," said Charlotte, severely.

"Eddy, I don't know what papa will say."

"I know," said Eddy, simply, with a curious mixture of ruefulness and defiance. Then he added: "If you want to be mean enough to tell on a feller, after he's been the means of your having such a supper as that (and you were hungry, too; you needn't say you wasn't; you ate an awful lot yourself), you can."

"I am not going to tell unless I am asked, when I certainly shall not tell a lie," replied Charlotte; "but papa will find it out himself, I am afraid, Eddy."

"I shouldn't wonder if he did," admitted Eddy.

"And then, you know--"

"Yes, I know; but I don't care. I have had that bully supper, anyhow. He can't alter that. And, say, Charlotte."

"What?" asked Charlotte, severely. "I am ashamed of you, Eddy."

"I don't see why papa don't get a store, like him"--he jerked an expressive shoulder towards the scent of the cigar smoke--"and then we could have things as good as they do."

But then Charlotte turned on him with fierceness none the less intense, although necessarily subdued. "Eddy Carroll," she whispered, with a long-drawn sibilance, "to turn on your father, a man like papa! Eddy Carroll! Poor papa does the best he can, always, always."

"I suppose he does," said Eddy, quite loudly. "My, Charlotte, you needn't act as if you were going to bite a feller. I've had enough of--"

"What?" asked Charlotte.

"Nothing," said Eddy. His arm was paining him quite severely. It had been quite an ordeal for him to manage his knife and fork at supper without betrayal.

"What were you going to say?" persisted Charlotte.

"Nothing," said Eddy, doggedly--"nothing at all. Don't act so fierce, Charlotte. It isn't lady-like. Amy never speaks so awful quick."

Charlotte began putting on her hat, which had been left on the sitting-room table. "I am ashamed of you," she whispered again. "I was ashamed of you all tea-time."

Eddy whistled in a mannish fashion. Charlotte continued adjusting her hat and smoothing her fluff of dark hair. Her face, in the mirror which hung between the two front windows, looked not so angry as sorrowful, and with a dewy softness in the pretty eyes, and a slight quiver about the soft mouth. Eddy glanced several times at this reflected face; then he stole, with a sudden, swift motion, up behind his sister, threw his arms around her neck, although it hurt him cruelly, and laid his boyish cheek against her soft, girlish one.

"No, you need not think that will make up," whispered Charlotte. But she herself pressed her cheek tenderly against his, and then laughed softly. "Try not to do so again, dear," she said. "It mortified me, and it is not being a credit to papa. Think a little and try to remember how you have been brought up."

"Charlotte," whispered Eddy, in the softest, most furtive of whispers, casting a glance over his shoulder.

"What is it, dear?"

"I suppose they"--he indicated by a motion of his shoulder his host and hostess--"are just as nice people as--we are--as the Carrolls."

"Of course they are," replied Charlotte, hastily. She pushed Eddy away softly and began to fuss again with her hat. "We must go home right away," she said, "or they will worry."

"There is no need of his going home with you, as long as I am here," said Eddy.

"Of course not," replied Charlotte.

But it seemed that Anderson himself had other views, and his mother also, for although a sudden and not altogether easy suspicion had come to her, she whispered aside to him that he must certainly accompany the two home.

"It is quite dark already," she said, "and it is not fit for that child to go alone with nobody but that boy, after the fright she has had this afternoon. She is just in the condition now when a shadow might upset her. You really must go with her, Randolph."

"I have no intention of doing anything else, mother," Randolph replied, laughing. He had been, indeed, taking his overcoat from the tree in the hall when his mother had come out to speak to him. Charlotte had said, on rising from the table, that she must go home at once.

Mrs. Anderson enveloped the girl in her large, gentle, lavender-scented embrace, and received with pleasant disclaimers her assurances of obligations and thanks; then she stood in the window and, with a little misgiving, and a ready imagination for future trouble, watched them emerge from the little front yard and disappear down the street under the low-growing maple branches which were turning slowly, and flashed gold over their heads in electric lights. She reflected judicially that while Charlotte was undoubtedly a sweet girl, and very pretty, very pretty, indeed, and, while her own heart was drawn to her, yet she would make no sort of wife for her son. She remembered with a shudder Eddy's remarks at the table.

"He is a pretty little boy, too," she thought, with a maternal thrill, remembering her own son at that age. When she returned to the dining-room to wash the pink-and-gold cups and saucers, in her little bowl of hot water on the end of the table, as was her custom when the best china had been used, the maid, who was clearing the table, and who had been encouraged to conversation from the lack of another woman in the house, and her mistress's habit of gentle garrulity, spoke upon the subject in her mind.

"Them was them Carrolls that lives in the Ranger place, was they not?" said she. The maid was a curious product of the region, having somewhat anomalously graduated at a high-school in New Sanderson before entering service, and gotten a strange load of unassimilated knowledge, which was particularly exemplified in her English. She scorned contractions, but equally scorned possessives and legitimate tenses. She wrote a beautiful hand, using quite ambitious words, but she totally misinterpreted the meaning of these very words in current literature, particularly the cook-book. Her bread was as heavy with undigested facts as is the stomach of a dyspeptic with food, but she was, in a way, a good servant, very faithful, attached to Mrs. Anderson, and a guileless purveyor of gossip, which rendered her exceedingly entertaining. She sniffed meaningly now in response to Mrs. Anderson's affirmative with regard to the identity of the recent guests.

"They did not fail to eat enough," said she, presently, packing up the plates and looking at her mistress, who was drying carefully a pink-and-gold cup on a soft towel.

"Yes, they seemed to relish the food," responded Mrs. Anderson.

The maid sniffed again, and her sniff meant the gratification of the cook who sees her work appreciated, and something else--an indulgent scorn. "Well, I guess there is reason enough for them relishing it," said she.

Mrs. Anderson made a soft, interrogatory noise, all that was consistent with her dignity and her sense of honor as a recent hostess towards departed guests.

The maid went on. "They do say," said she, "them as knows, that them Carrolls do not have enough to eat."

Mrs. Anderson made a little exclamation expressive of horror and pity.

"Yes, they do say so," the maid went on, solemnly. "They do say, them that knows, that them Carrolls be owing everybody in Banbridge, and have cheated folks that have trusted in them awful."

"Well, I am sorry if it is so," said Mrs. Anderson, with a sigh, "but of course this young lady who was here to-night and her little brother can't be to blame in any way, Emma."

The maid sniffed with a deprecating disagreement. "Mebbe they be not," said she. She was rather a pretty girl, in her late girlhood, thin and large-boned, with a bright color on her evident cheek-bones, and with small, sparkling, blue eyes. She was extremely neat and trim, moreover, in her personal habits, and to-night was quite gorgeously arrayed in a light silk waist and a nice black skirt. She was expecting her beau to take her to evening prayer-meeting. She was a very religious girl, and had reclaimed her beau, who had had a liking for the gin-mills previous to keeping company with her.

"Of course they are not," said Mrs. Anderson, with some warmth of partisanship, remembering poor little Charlotte's pretty, anxious face and her tiny, soft, clinging hands. She glanced, as she spoke, at the maid's large, red-knuckled fingers with a mental comparison.

The maid was fixed in her own rendering of English verbs, and had told her beau that her mistress did not speak just right, like most old folks.

"Mebbe they be not," she said, with firm doubt. Then she added, "It would not hurt them Carroll ladies, that young lady, nor her mother, nor her aunt, if they was to take hold, and do the housework them own selves, instead of keeping a girl, who they do not never pay."

"Oh, dear! Do you know that?"

"Indeed I do know that! Ed, he told me. He had it straight from them Hungarians who live in the house back of his married sister's. The Carroll girl, she goes there, and she told them, and them told Ed's sister."

"Perhaps she has had some of her wages. You don't mean she has not been paid at all?" Mrs. Anderson said.

"I mean not at all," the maid said, firmly. "That girl that works for them Carrolls has not been paid, not at all."

"Why does she remain there, then?"

"She would have went a long time ago if she not been afraid, lest, if she had went, it would have come about that she would have lost all she was going to lose as well as that which she had lost before," replied the girl, and Mrs. Anderson, being accustomed to her method of expression, understood.

"It is dreadful," she said.

"They say he has about ruined a great many of the people in Banbridge who have trusted them," said the maid, with a sly, keen glance at her mistress. She had heard that Mr. Anderson was one of the losers, and she wondered.

"They have paid my son promptly, I believe," said Mrs. Anderson, although a little reluctantly. She always disliked alluding to the store to her maid, much more so than towards her equals. But that the maid misunderstood. She often told her beau that Mrs. Anderson was not a bit set up nor proud-feeling, if her son _did have a store. Therefore, to-night she understood humility instead of pride from her mistress's tone, and looked at her admiringly as she daintily polished the delicate pink-and-gold cups.

"I am very glad, indeed, that Mr. Randolph has not lost nothing through them," she replied.

"No, he has not," Mrs. Anderson repeated. "I dare say it is all exaggerated. The young lady who was here to-night seems like a very sweet girl."

Mrs. Anderson said that from a beautiful sense of loyalty and justice, while in her mind's eye she saw her beloved son walking along through the early night with the young lady on his arm, and perhaps falling desperately in love, even at this date, and beginning to think of matrimony with a member of a family about which such tales were told in Banbridge.

But the harm had been done long before she had dreamed of it, and her son had been very much in love with the girl on his arm before he had scarcely known her by sight. Anderson that night felt in a sort of dream. He was for the first time practically alone with Charlotte, for Eddy accompanied them very much after the fashion of an extremely lively little dog. He ran ahead, he lagged behind, and made dashes ahead with wild whoops. He hid behind trees, and sprang out at them when they passed. He was frequently startlingly obvious, but could not be said to actually be with them. He had wondered frankly, before they started, as to why Anderson wished to accompany them at all.

"I don't see why you want to go 'way up to our house when Charlotte has got me," he said. "Ain't you tired?"

Something in Anderson's persistency seemed to strike him as significant, for he walked behind them quite soberly, with his eye upon their backs in a speculative fashion at first; then he seemed to be seized with wild excitement, and began frantic demonstrations to attract Anderson's attention. In reality the boy was jealous, although nobody dreamed of such a thing.

"A man will never notice a feller when a pretty girl's around; and she ain't so very pretty, either," he said to himself. He regarded Anderson as his find, and was naturally indignant with Charlotte. So all the way home he darted and veered about them, in order to divert the man's mind from the girl to the faithful little boy, but with no avail. Once or twice Charlotte spoke reproachfully to him, and that was all. Anderson never spoke a word to him, and his grief and jealousy grew.

Anderson, walking along the shadowy street with Charlotte's little hand in his arm, would have been oblivious to much more startling demonstrations than poor Eddy's. He was profoundly agitated, stirred to the depths, and for that very reason he acquitted himself with more dignity and quiet calm than usual. He held himself with such a tight rein that his soul ached, but he never relaxed his hold. He told himself that it would be monstrous if by a word or gesture, by a tone of the voice, he betrayed anything to this little, innocent, timid, frightened girl on his arm. He never dreamed of the remotest possibility of dreams on her part. The soul beside him, seemingly separated only by thin walls of flesh, was in reality separated by an abyss of the imagination. But every minute his heart seemed to encompass her more and more tenderly, seemed to enfold her, shielding her from itself with its own love. Now and then he looked down at her, and the sight of the little, pale, flower-like face turned towards his with a serious, guileless scrutiny, like a baby's, caused him to fairly tremble with his passion of protection and adoration. They talked very little. Charlotte, if the truth were told, in spite of the tender nursing she had received, was still feeling rather shaken, and she had also a curious sense of timid and excited happiness, which tied her tongue and wove her thoughts even into an incoherent dazzle. When Anderson spoke, it was very coolly, on quite indifferent topics, and Charlotte answered him in her soft, rather unsteady little voice, and then conversation lagged again. It was on Anderson's tongue to question her closely as to her entire recovery from her fright of the afternoon, but he did not even do that, being afraid to trust his voice.

As they drew near the Carroll house, a doubt and perplexity which had been haunting Charlotte, assumed larger proportions, and Anderson himself had a thought also of the complication. Charlotte was wondering if she should ask him in. She was wondering what her mother and aunt would think. She knew what they would do, of course--that is, so far as their reception of the man who had befriended her, and whose mother had befriended her was concerned. They were gentlewomen. And she knew quite certainly about her father. But she wondered as to their real attitude, their mental attitude, and she wondered still more with regard to Anderson. Would he expect to be invited in? In what fashion did he read his own social status in the village. Anderson also was considering, during the last of the way, if he should enter the Carroll house and present his apologies and his mother's for having urged the fugitive members of the family to remain, and he wondered a good deal as to the desirable course for him to adopt, even supposing he were invited. While he had no consciousness whatever of any loss of prestige among people whom he had always known in the village, while, in fact, he never gave it a thought--yet he knew reasonably that outsiders might possibly look at matters differently, that his own unshaken estimate of himself, the estimate which was the same in a grocery-store as in a lawyer's office, might not be accepted. He recognized the fact with amusement rather than indignation, but he recognized it. He wondered how the girl would look at it all, whether she would ask him in to make the acquaintance of her family, and whether, if she did so he should accept.

But Charlotte came to have no doubt whatever that she should ask him. Suddenly a great wave of loyalty towards this new friend came over her, loyalty and great courage.

"Of course I shall ask him, when he has done all he has for me, he and his mother," she decided. "I shall, and I don't care what they think. I don't care. He is a gentleman, as much a gentleman as papa." Charlotte walked more erect, the pressure of her hand on Anderson's arm tightened a little unconsciously. When they reached the Carroll grounds she spoke very sweetly, and not at all hesitatingly.

"You will come in and let my family thank you for your kindness to me, Mr. Anderson," she said.

Anderson smiled down at her, and hesitated. "I do not require any thanks. What I have done was only a pleasure," he said. In his anxiety to control his voice, he overdid the matter, and made it exceedingly cool.

"He means he would have done just the same for any other girl, and it is silly for me to think he needs to be thanked so much for it," thought Charlotte, like a flash. She was full of the hair-splitting fancies of young girlhood in their estimate of a man. Her heart sank, but she repeated, still sweetly, though now a little more formally: "Then please come in and meet my father and mother and aunt. I should like to have you know them, and I am sure it would be a great pleasure to them."

"Thank you, Miss Carroll," Anderson said, slowly. Then, while he hesitated, came suddenly the sound of a shrill, vituperating voice from the house, a voice raised in a solo-like effect, the burden of which seemed both grief and rage, and contumely.

Eddy, who had given one of his dashes ahead, when they reached the grounds, came flying back. "Say," he said, "there's an awful shindy in the house. The dressmaker is pitching into papa for all she is worth, and there are some other folks, but she's goin' it loudest; but they are all going it! Cracky! Hear 'em!"

Indeed, at that second the solo became a chorus. The house seemed all clamorous with scolding voices. The door stood open, and the hall-light streamed out in the hall.

"Marie, she's in there, too," said Eddy, in an odd sort of glee, "and Martin. They are all pitching into papa for their money, but he's enough for them." It became evident why the boy's voice was gleeful. He was pitting his father, with the most filial pride and confidence, against his creditors.

Anderson held out his hand to Charlotte. "Good-night," he said, hastily, "and I hope you will feel no ill effects to-morrow from your fright." Then he was gone before Charlotte could say anything more.

"It's an awful shindy," Eddy said, still in that tone of strange glee, to his sister. To his great amazement, she caught him suddenly by his arm, the hurt one, but he did not flinch.

The girl began to cry. "Oh, Eddy!" she sobbed, pitifully. "Oh, Eddy dear!"

"What are you crying for, Charlotte?" asked Eddy, giving his head a rough caressing duck against hers. "Papa's enough for them; you know that. He ain't a mite scared."

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