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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Tin Soldier - BOOK ONE _ ON THE SHELF - Chapter VII. HILDA
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The Tin Soldier - BOOK ONE _ ON THE SHELF - Chapter VII. HILDA Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :Temple Bailey Date :April 2012 Read :1725

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The Tin Soldier - BOOK ONE _ ON THE SHELF - Chapter VII. HILDA

BOOK ONE ON THE SHELF - CHAPTER VII. HILDA

The argument came up at breakfast two days before Thanksgiving. It was a hot argument. Jean beat her little hands upon the table. Hilda's hands were still, but it was an irritating stillness.

"What do you think, Daddy?"

"Hilda is right. There is no reason why we should go to extremes."

"But a turkey--."

"Nobody has said that we shouldn't have a turkey on Thanksgiving--not even Hoover." Hilda's voice was as irritating as her hands.

"Well, we have consciences, Hilda. And a turkey would choke me."

"You make so much of little things."

"Is it a little thing to sacrifice our appetites?"

"I don't think it is a very big thing." The office bell rang, and Hilda rose. "If I felt as you do I should sacrifice something more than things to eat. I'd go over there and nurse the wounded. I could be of real service. But you couldn't. With all your big ideas of patriotism you couldn't do one single practical thing."

It was true, and Jean knew that it was true, but she fired one more shot. "Then why don't you go?" she demanded fiercely.

"I may," Hilda said slowly. "I have been thinking about it. I haven't made up my mind."

Dr. McKenzie glanced at her in surprise. "I didn't dream you felt that way."

"I don't think I do mean it in the way you mean. I should go because there was something worth doing--not as a grandstand play."

She went out of the room. Jean stared after her.

The Doctor laughed. "She got you there, girlie."

"Yes, she did. Do you really think she intends to go, Daddy?"

"It is news to me."

"Good news?"

He shook his head. "She is a very valuable nurse. I should hate to lose her." He sat for a moment in silence, then stood up. "I shouldn't hold out for a turkeyless Thanksgiving if I were you. It isn't necessary."

"Are you taking Hilda's part, Daddy?"

"No, my dear, of course not." He came over and kissed her. "Will you ride with me this morning?"

"Oh, yes--how soon?"

"In ten minutes. After I see this patient."

In less time than that she was ready and waiting for him in her squirrel coat and hat and her little muff.

Her father surveyed her. "Such a lovely lady."

"Do you like me, Daddy?"

"What a question--I love you."

Safe in the car, with the glass screen shutting away the chauffeur, Jean returned to the point of attack.

"Hilda makes me furious, Daddy. I came to talk about her."

"I thought you came because you wanted to ride with me."

"Well, I did. But for this, too."

Over her muff, her stormy eyes surveyed him. "You think I am unreasonable about meatless and wheatless days. But you don't know. Hilda ignores them, Daddy--you should see the breadbox. And the other day she ordered a steak for dinner, one of those big thick ones--and it was Tuesday, and I happened to go down to the kitchen and saw it--and I told the cook that we wouldn't have it, and when I came up I told Hilda, and she laughed and said that I was silly.

"And I said that if she had that steak cooked I would not eat it, and I should ask you not to eat it, and she just stood with her hands flat on your desk, you know the way she does--I hate her hands--and she said that of course if I was going to make a fuss about it she wouldn't have the steak, but that it was simply a thing she couldn't understand. The steak was there, why not eat it? And I said it was because of the psychological effect on other people. And she said we were having too much psychology and not enough common sense in this war!

"Well, after that, I went to my Red Cross meeting at the church. I expected to have lunch there, but I changed my mind and came home. Hilda was at the table alone, and, Daddy, she was eating the steak, the whole of it--." She paused to note the effect of her revelation.

"Well?"

"She was eating it when all the world needs food! She made me think of those dreadful creatures in the fairy books. She's--she's a ghoul--"

"My dear."

"A ghoul. You should have seen her, with great chunks of bread and butter."

"Hilda has a healthy appetite."

"Of course you defend her."

"My dear child--"

"Oh you do, Daddy, always, against me--and I'm your daughter--"

She wept a tear or two into her muff, then raised her eyes to find him regarding her quizzically. "Are you going to spoil my ride?"

"You are spoiling mine."

"We won't quarrel about it. And we'll stop at Small's. Shall it be roses or violets, to-day, my dear?"

She chose violets, as more in accord with her pensive mood, lighting the bunch, however, with one red rose. The question of Hilda was not settled, but she yielded as many an older woman has yielded--to the sweetness of tribute--to man's impulse to make things right not by justice but by the bestowal of his bounty.

From the florist's, they went to Huyler's old shop on F Street, where the same girl had served Jean with ice-cream sodas and hot chocolate for fifteen years. Administrations might come and administrations go, but these pleasant clerks had been cup-bearers to them all--Presidents' daughters and diplomats' sons--the sturdy children of plain Congressmen, the scions of noble families across the seas.

It was while Jean sat on a high stool beside her father, the sunshine shining on her through the wide window, that Derry Drake, coming down Twelfth, saw her!

Well, he wanted a lemonade. And the fact that she was there in a gray squirrel coat and bunch of violets with her copper-colored hair shining over her ears wasn't going to leave him thirsty!

He went in. He bowed to the Doctor and received a smile in return. Jean's eyes were cold above her chocolate. Derry bought his check, went to a little table on the raised platform at the back of the room, drank his lemonade and hurried out.

"A nice fellow," said the Doctor, watching him through the window. "I wonder why he didn't stop and speak to us?"

"I'm glad he didn't."

"My dear, why?"

"I've found out things--"

"What things?"

"That he's a--coward," with tense earnestness. "He won't fight."

"Who told you that?"

"Everybody's saying it."

"Everybody is dead wrong."

"What do you mean, Daddy?"

"What I have just said. Everybody is dead wrong."

"How do you know?"

"A doctor knows a great many things which he is not permitted to tell. I am rather bound not to tell in this case."

"Oh, but you could tell me."

"Hardly--it was given in confidence."

"Did he? Oh, Daddy, did he tell you?"

"Yes."

"And he isn't a slacker?"

"No."

"I knew it--."

"You didn't. You thought he was a coward."

"Well, I ought to have known better. He looks brave, doesn't he?"

"I shouldn't call him exactly a heroic figure."

"Shouldn't you?"

She finished her chocolate in silence, and followed him in silence to his car. They sped up F Street, gay with its morning crowd.

Then at last it came. "Isn't it a wonderful day, Daddy?"

He smiled down at her. "There you go."

"Well, it is wonderful." She fell again into silence, then again bestowed upon him her raptures. "Wouldn't it be dreadful if we had loveless days, Daddy, as well as meatless ones and wheatless?"

That night, after Jean had gone to bed, the Doctor, having dismissed his last patient, came out of his inner office. Hilda, in her white nurse's costume, was busy with the books. He stood beside her desk. His eyes were dancing. "Jean told me about the steak."

"I knew she would--I suppose it was an awful thing to do. But I was hungry, and I hate fish--" She smiled at him lazily, then laughed.

He laughed back. He felt that it would be unbearable for Hilda to go hungry, to spoil her red and white with abstinence.

"My dear girl," he said, "what did you mean when you spoke of going away?"

"Haven't you been thinking of going?"

The color came up in his cheeks. "Yes, but how did you know it?"

"Well, a woman knows. Why don't you make up your mind?"

"There's Jean to think of."

"Emily Bridges could take care of her. And you ought to go. Men are seeing things over there that they'll never see again. And women are."

"If my country needs me--"

Hilda was cold. "I shouldn't go for that. As I told Jean, I am not making any grand stand plays. I should go for all that I get out of it, the experience, the adventure--."

He looked at her with some curiosity. Jean's words of the afternoon recurred to him. "She's a ghoul--"

Yet there was something almost fascinating in her frankness. She tore aside ruthlessly the curtain of self-deception, revealing her motives, as if she challenged him to call them less worthy than his own.

"If I go, it will be because I want to become a better nurse. I like it here, but your practice is necessarily limited. I should get a wider view of things. So would you. There would be new worlds of disease, men in all conditions of nervous shock."

"I know. But I'd hate to think I was going merely for selfish ends."

She shrugged. "Why not that as well as any other?"

He had a smouldering sense of irritation.

"When I am with Jean she makes me feel rather big and fine; when I am with you--" He paused.

"I make you see yourself as you are, a man. She thinks you are more than that."

All his laughter left ham. "It is something to be a hero to one's daughter. Perhaps some day I shall be a little better for her thinking so."

She saw that she had gone too far. "You mustn't take the things I say too seriously."

The bell of the telephone at her elbow whirred. She put the receiver to her ear. "It is General Drake's man; he thinks you'd better come over before you go to bed."

"I was afraid I might have to go. He is in rather bad shape, Hilda."

She packed his bag for him competently, and telephoned for his car. "I'll have a cup of coffee ready for you when you get back," she said, as she stood in the door. "It is going to be a dreadful night."

The streets were icy and the sleet falling. "You'd better have your overshoes," Hilda decided, and went for them.

As he put them on, she stood under the hall light, smiling. "Have you forgiven me?" she asked as he straightened up.

"For telling me the truth? Of course. You take such good care of me, Hilda."

Upstairs in her own room Jean was writing a letter. It was a very pretty room, very fresh and frilly with white dimity and with much pink and pale lavender. The night-light which shone through the rose taffeta petticoats of a porcelain lady was supplemented at the moment by a bed-side lamp which flung a ring of gold beyond Jean's blotter to the edge of the lace spread. For Jean was writing in bed. All day her mind had been revolving around this letter, but she had had no time to write. She had spent the afternoon in the Toy Shop with Emily, and in the evening there had been a Red Cross sale. She had gone to the sale with Ralph Witherspoon and his mother. She had not been able to get out of going. All the time she had talked to Ralph she had thought of Derry. She had rather hoped that he might be there, but he wasn't.

The letter required much thought. She tore up, extravagantly, several sheets of note-paper with tiny embossed thistles at the top. Doctor McKenzie was intensely Scotch, and he was entitled to a crest, but he was also intensely American, and would have none of it. He had designed Jean's note-paper, and it was lovely. But it was also expensive, and it was a shame to waste so much of it on Derry Drake.

The note when it was finished seemed very simple. Just one page in Jean's firm, clear script:

"Dear Mr. Drake:--

"Could you spare me one little minute tomorrow? I shall be at home at four. It is very important--to me at least. Perhaps when you hear what I have to say, it will seem important to you. I hope it may.

"Very sincerely yours,

"JEAN MCKENZIE."

She read it over several times. It seemed very stiff and inadequate. She sealed it and stamped it, then in a panic tore it open for a re-reading. She was oppressed by doubts. Did nice girls ask men to come and see them? Didn't they wait and weary (Transcriber's note: worry?) like Mariana of the Moated Grange--? "He cometh not, she said?"

New times! New manners! She had branded a man as a coward. She had condemned him unheard. She had slighted him, she had listened while others slandered--why should she care what other women had done? Would do? Her way was clear. She owed an apology to Derry Drake, and she would make it.

So with a new envelope, a new stamp, the note was again sealed.

It had to be posted that night. She felt that under no circumstance could she stand the suspense of another day.

She had heard her father go out. Hilda was coming up, the maids were asleep. She waited until Hilda's door was shut, then she slipped out of bed, tucked her toes into a pair of sandals, threw a furry motor coat around her, and sped silently down the stairs. She shrank back as she opened the front door. The sleet rattled on the steps, the pavements were covered with white.

The mail-box was in front of the house. She made a rush for it, dropped in the precious letter, and gained once more the haven of the warm hall.

She was glad to get back to her room. As she settled down among her pillows, she had a great sense of adventure, as if she had travelled far in a few moments.

As a matter of fact, she had made her first real excursion into the land of romance. She found her thoughts galloping.

At the foot of the bed her silver Persian, Polly Ann, lay curled on her own gray blanket.

"Polly Ann," Jean said, "if he doesn't come, I shall hate myself for writing that note."

Polly Ann surveyed her sleepily.

"But it would serve me right if he didn't, Polly Ann."

She turned off the light and tried to sleep. Downstairs the telephone rang. It rang, too, in Hilda's room. Hilda's door opened and shut. She came across the hall and tapped on Jean's door. "May I come in?"

"Yes."

"Your father has just telephoned," Hilda said from the threshold, "that General Drake's nurse is not well, and will have to be taken off the case. I shall have to go in her place. There is a great shortage at the hospital. Will you be afraid to stay alone, or shall I wake up Ellen and have her sleep on the couch in your dressing room?"

"Of course I am not afraid, Hilda. Nothing can happen until father comes back."

As Hilda went away, Jean had a delicious feeling of detachment. She would be alone in the house with her thoughts of Derry.

She got out of bed to say her prayers. With something of a thrill she prayed for Derry's father. She was not conscious as she made her petitions of any ulterior motive. Yet a placated Providence would, she felt sure, see that the General's sickness should not frustrate the plans which she had quite daringly made for his son.

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