Grandma was on the veranda, knitting, knitting, always knitting.
“What a bird’s perch this is,” said some one suddenly, behind her.
She turned round. Grandson Roger was trying to squeeze his tall frame between the equally tall frame of an old-fashioned rocking-chair and the veranda railing.
“How you must miss your big veranda on Grand Avenue,” he said, coming to sit beside her.
“I don’t,” said Grandma, tranquilly. “It’s wonderful how one gets used to things. Berty and I used to enjoy our roomy veranda, but we have adapted ourselves to this one, and never feel like complaining.”
“It’s a wonderful thing—that power of adaptation,” said the young man, soberly, “and I have a theory that the primitive in us likes to return to small quarters and simplicity. For instance, I am never so happy as when I leave my large house and go to live in my hunting-camp.”
Grandma smiled, and took up her knitting again.
Roger, who had comfortably settled himself in the corner beside her, frowned slightly. “Grandma, the girls tell me that you are selling these stockings you knit.”
“Yes, why not?” she asked, quietly.
“But there is no need of it.”
“They bring a good price. You cannot buy home-knit silk stockings everywhere.”
“But it is drudgery for you.”
“I enjoy it.”
“Very well, if you enjoy it. But you won’t persist if it tires you?”
“Who buys the stockings?” he asked, curiously.
“I sell them among my friends. Mrs. Darley-James buys the most of them.”
His face grew red. “You supply stockings to her?”
“Why should I not?”
“I don’t know why, but it makes me ‘mad,’ as Berty says.”
“Didn’t you supply her husband with that new iron railing for his garden?”
“Yes, ma’am, I did, and it’s a good one.”
“Well, if you sell the husband a garden railing, why shouldn’t I sell the wife a pair of stockings?”
“I don’t know,” he said, with a laugh. “I suppose it’s the nonsensical notion about one kind of labour being degrading, and another ennobling. We’re all simpletons, anyway—we human beings. Where is Berty this evening?”
“Listen,” said Grandma, putting up a hand.
Down in the back yard was a sound of hammering.
Roger leaned over the railing. “What under the sun is she doing?”
“Puttering over those pigeons—making new boxes for them.”
“Who is with her? I see a man’s back.”
“Jimson?”—and Roger fell back in his seat with a disturbed air.
“The same,” said Grandma, calmly.
Roger wrinkled his forehead. “That reminds me—came to see you partly about that. It seems Berty and the Mayor go about a good deal together.”
“How do you know?” asked Grandma, shrewdly.
“Oh, I know, people notice them.”
“Some one has been complaining to you,” said Grandma. “Who was it?”
Roger smiled. “Well, to tell the truth, Tom Everest was grumbling. You know he has been just like a brother to Berty and Margaretta.”
“Yes, I know,” said Grandma, tranquilly. “I just wanted to find out whether there was any public gossip about Berty’s friendship for the Mayor. Friendly inquiry on the part of an old playmate is another matter.”
“I cannot imagine Berty giving any one any occasion for gossip,” said Roger, proudly.
“Nor I—well, go on, what did Tom say?”
“He said, ‘What does this mean, Stanisfield? Berty is for ever on the river with the Mayor, he is for ever dangling about her house, and that park she is getting in shape for the children. If I were you I’d put a word in Mrs. Travers’s ear. Don’t speak to Berty.’”
“Poor Tom!” said Grandma.
“He’s jealous, I suppose,” said Roger. “Still, if he talks, some one else may talk. What does it mean that Jimson comes here so much? You don’t suppose he has taken a fancy to Berty?”
Grandma smiled. “Yes, I do, a strong and uncommon fancy. He is perfectly fascinated by her.”
Roger’s jaw fell, and he smote with his fist on the arm of the rocking-chair. “Get rid of him, Grandma. Don’t have him round.”
“Why not—he’s an honourable man.”
“But not for Berty—you don’t know, Grandma. He’s all right morally, but he’s vulgar—none of our set go with him.”
“I don’t find him unbearably vulgar. He seems a kind-hearted man, but I am unintentionally deceiving you. He is over forty years old, Roger.”
“Well, men of forty, and men of fifty, fancy girls of half their age.”
“Fancy them, yes, but he has no intention of falling in love with Berty. He is simply charmed with her as a companion.”
“It’s a dangerous companionship,” grumbled Roger.
“Not so—they quarrel horribly,” and Grandma laughed enjoyably over some reminiscences.
“Quarrel, do they?”
“Yes, Roger—my theory is that that man is too hard worked. Fagged out when he leaves his office, he is beset by petitioners for this thing and that thing. At home I fancy he has little peace, for his mother and sisters are ambitious socially, and urge him to attend various functions for which he has no heart. Unexpectedly he has found a place of refuge here, and a congenial playfellow in Berty. I think he really has to put a restraint upon himself to keep from coming oftener.”
“This is Jimson in a new light,” said Roger, listening attentively.
“In River Street,” continued Grandma, “he is free. No one comes to find him here. He has plenty of excitement and amusement if Berty is about. If she is out, he sits and talks to me by the hour.”
“To you—” said Roger. “I should not think he would have anything in common with a lady like you.”
“Ah, Roger, there is beauty in every human soul,” said the little old lady, eloquently. “The trouble is we are all too much taken up with externals. There is something pathetic to me about this man. Hard-working, ambitious, longing for congenial companionship, not knowing just where to get it, he keeps on at his daily treadmill. He has got to be a kind of machine, and he has tried to stifle the spirit within him. Berty, with her youth and freshness, has, in some way or other, the knack of putting her finger on some sensitive nerve that responds easily to her touch. He is becoming quite interested in what she is interested in.”
Roger was staring at her in great amusement. “You talk well, Grandma, and at unusual length for you, but a man convinced against his will, you know—”
The old lady smiled sweetly at him, smiled with the patience of one who is willing to wait a long time in order to be understood. Then knitting steadily without looking at her work, she gazed far out over the beautiful river.
It was very wide just here, and, now that evening was falling, they could barely distinguish the fields and white farmhouses on the other side. The stars were coming out one by one—those “beautiful seeds sown in the field of the sky.” Roger could see the old lady’s lips moving. She was probably repeating some favourite passages of Scripture. What a good woman she was. What a help to him, and what a valuable supplement to his own mother, who was a woman of another type.
His eyes grew moist, and for a long time he sat gazing with her at the darkening yet increasingly beautiful sky and river.
The hammering went on below, until Berty’s voice suddenly rang out. “We’ll have to stop, Mr. Jimson. It’s getting too dark to see where to put the nails.”
“I’ll come help you to-morrow evening,” replied the Mayor, in his thick, good-natured voice.
“No, thank you. I won’t trouble you. I’ll get a carpenter. You’ve been too good already.”
“I like to do it. You’ve no idea how much I enjoy puttering round a house,” replied Mr. Jimson. “I never get a chance at home.”
“Why—aren’t there things to do about your house?”
“Yes; but if I get at a thing I’m sure to be interrupted, and then my mother doesn’t like to see me carpentering.”
“You ought to have a house of your own,” said Berty, decidedly. “It is the duty of every man to marry and bring up a family and to keep it together. That helps the Union, but if you have no family you can’t keep it together, and you are an unworthy son of this great republic.”
“That’s a fact,” replied the Mayor. “I guess we’ll have a little talk about it. I’ll just sit down here on this bench a minute to rest. I’m quite blown.”
Berty made no response, or, if she did, it was in such a low tone that the occupants of the veranda could not hear, and presently the Mayor went on.
“Yes, I’ve often thought of getting married. A man ought to, before he gets too old. How old would you take me to be?”
“About fifty,” came promptly, in Berty’s clear voice.
Her companion was evidently annoyed, for it was some time before he spoke, and then he said, briefly, “Fifty!”
“Well,” said Berty, kindly, “I said about fifty. I dare say you’re not much more than forty.”
“I suppose forty seems like dead old age to you?” queried the Mayor, curiously.
“Oh, yes—it seems far off like the other side of the river,” replied the girl.
“Well, I’m forty-five,” said the Mayor.
“Forty-five,” repeated Berty, musingly, “just think of it! You seem quite young in your ways.”
“Young—I dare say I feel as young as you,” he replied. “I wish you were a bit older.”
“Why?” asked Berty, innocently.
“Oh, well, I don’t know why,” he replied, with sudden sheepishness.
Roger glanced at Grandma. It was not like her to play eavesdropper.
But dear Grandma was not hearing a word of what was being said below. Her knitting had fallen from her hand, her head had dropped forward, her cheeks were gently puffing in and out. She was quietly and unmistakably asleep.
Roger smiled, and kept on listening. He had no scruples on his own account, and he wanted his question answered. Why was the Mayor dangling about Berty?
Mr. Jimson was still on the subject of matrimony. The quiet evening, the, as he supposed, secluded spot, Berty’s amiability, all tended to excite confidence in him.
In response to something he had said, Berty was remarking, with gentle severity, “I should think you would talk this matter over with your mother rather than with me.”
“Well,” Mr. Jimson said, thoughtfully, “it’s queer how you can tell things to strangers, easier than to your mother.”
“I couldn’t,” said Berty, promptly. “If I were thinking of getting married, I’d ask Grandma to advise me. She’s had so much experience. She chose Roger of all Margaretta’s admirers.”
“Did she, now?” said the Mayor, in admiration. “That was a first-class choice.” Then he asked, insinuatingly, “And have you ever consulted her for yourself?”
“Of course not—not yet. It’s too soon.”
“I suppose it is,” said Mr. Jimson, in a disappointed voice, “and, as I said before, I wish you were ten years older.”
“You don’t mean to say that you would think of me for yourself?” asked Berty, in a sudden, joyful voice.
“Yes, I would,” he replied, boldly.
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” said the girl, gaily; “that’s my first proposal, or, rather, I suppose it isn’t a bona fide proposal. It’s just a hint. Still it counts. I’ve really got out into life. Margaretta has always kept me down where gentlemen were concerned. Older sisters have to, you know. I’ll be just dreadfully interested in you after this. Do let me pick you out a wife.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” said the Mayor, guardedly.
“Just tell me what you want,” continued Berty. “I know lots of girls, but I suppose you will want a woman. I know some of them, too—must she be light or dark?”
Mr. Jimson looked at Berty. “Black hair.”
“Very well—black hair to start with. Not tall, but short, I suppose.”
“Why short?” asked the Mayor, suspiciously.
“Well, you’re not dreadfully tall for a man, you know.”
The Mayor seemed to be sulking for some time. Then he said, “I like a good-sized woman.”
“Tall and black-haired,” said Berty, in a businesslike way. “Now, do you want a quiet woman, or a lively woman—a social woman, or a home body?”
“None of your rattlers for me,” said the man, hastily. “I want a quiet tongue, good manners, and no wasteful habits.”
“Do you want to entertain much?”
“Oh, law, no!” said her companion, wearily. “Upon my word, I think a deaf and dumb wife would suit me best. Then she couldn’t go to parties and drag me with her—Look here, there’s a woman I’ve seen sometimes when I go to church with my mother, that I’ve often thought was a nice-looking kind of person. You’d be sure to know her, for one of her brothers is a great friend of your brother-in-law.”
“Who is she?” asked Berty, eagerly.
Her companion seemed to have some hesitation about mentioning the name. At last he said, “Mother says her first name is Selina.”
“Not Selina Everest—don’t tell me that,” said Berty, quickly.
“Yes, that’s her name.”
Berty groaned. “And is she the only woman you have in your mind?”
“She’s the only one I can think of now as cutting any kind of a figure before me.”
“Selina Everest!” groaned Berty again. “Why don’t you say the Queen of England and be done with it? She’s the most exclusive of our ridiculously exclusive set. She is an aristocrat to her finger-tips. She wouldn’t look at you—that is, I don’t think—she probably wouldn’t—”
“How old is she?” asked the Mayor, breaking in upon her.
“Let me see—Tom, her brother, is six years older than I am, Walter is twenty-seven, Jim is thirty, Maude is older than he is, and Augustus is older than that. Oh, Miss Everest must be nearly forty.”
“Then she’ll jump at a chance to marry,” said the Mayor, coolly. “Has she a good temper?”
“Yes,” said Berty, feebly, “but—”
“But what? Does she snap sometimes?”
“No, no, she is always ladylike, but I am just sure she wouldn’t marry you.”
“Why are you so sure,” asked the Mayor, sharply.
“Am I a red Indian or a cowboy?” asked Mr. Jimson, indignantly.
“Is she a strong girl?”
“No, she is often in bed—I don’t really think—”
“Airs, probably,” said her companion. “Has been brought up soft. I’d break her of that.”
“She wouldn’t marry you,” said Berty, desperately.
“Don’t be too sure of that,” and Mr. Jimson’s voice sounded angry to the man on the veranda above.
“I tell you she wouldn’t. I’ve heard her just rave against people who don’t do things just as she does. If you ate with your knife, she’d think you were dust beneath her feet.”
The Mayor was silent.
“Why, if you wore carpet slippers in the parlour, or a dressing-gown, or went about the house in your shirt-sleeves, she’d have a fit.”
“And who does all these things?” asked the Mayor, sneeringly.
“You do!” replied Berty, stung into impertinence. “They say you received a delegation of clergymen in your slippers and dressing-gown.”
“That’s a lie,” he said, promptly, “got up by enemies.”
“Well, you don’t talk elegantly,” said Berty, wildly. “Miss Everest couldn’t stand that.”
“Who says I ain’t elegant?” asked the Mayor, fiercely.
“I do,” replied his companion. “You say ‘dry’ for thirsty, and ‘I ain’t’ for I am not, and ‘git’ for get, and—and lots of other things, and you don’t move gracefully. Miss Everest likes tall, thin men. I once heard her say so.”
“Is it my fault that I’m short?” roared the Mayor. “I didn’t make myself.”
Roger, convulsed with amusement on the veranda above, saw with regret that Grandma was waking up.
“Quarrelling again!” she murmured, moving her head about restlessly. “Send him home, Berty. Mr. Jimson, don’t mind her.”
Roger had missed something, for Berty was now giving the Mayor a terrible scolding. “I think you are a horrid, deceitful man. You come here with your mind all made up about a certain woman. You pretend to like me, then draw me out about the one you like. I’ll never speak to you again.”
Roger hung entranced over the railing. The back gate had just slammed on Mr. Jimson, and Berty was pouring out a flood of eloquent endearment on the pigeons.
Roger ran down the stairs with a broad smile on his face. There was no danger of sentimental nonsense between these two people.
“Hello, Berty,” he said, “want some help with your pidgie widgies?”
“No, Roger,” she replied, disconsolately, “I can’t get the boxes up to-night. Still, you might help me cover them some more. I’m dreadfully afraid of rats getting at them. There are legions of them down here.”
“You’ve had some one here, haven’t you?” said Roger, hypocritically.
“Yes, that miserable Mayor, but he’s so disagreeable that I shan’t let him help me finish. I’m never going to speak to him again. He’s too mean to live.”
“I’ll come and help you,” said Roger, bending over the pigeons to conceal his face. “Where are these boxes going in the meantime?”
“Up on top of those barrels. Aren’t those fan-tails sweet? Oh, you lubbie dubbies, Berty loves you better than the hateful old Mayor.”
Roger laughed outright, helped his young sister-in-law at the same time, and wondered whether the breach between her and her new friend would be final.