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by Sewell Ford



  YOU might call it time out, or suspended hostilities durin' peace negotiations, or anything like that. Anyway, Aunty has softened up to the extent of lettin' me come around once a week without makin' me assume a disguise, or crawl in through the coal chute. Course I'm still under suspicion; but while the ban ain't lifted complete she don't treat me quite so much like a porch climber or a free speech agitator.

  "Remember," says she, "Friday evenings only, from half after eight until not later than ten."

  "Yes 'm," says I, "and it's mighty ——"

  "Please!" she breaks in. "No grotesquely phrased effusions of gratitude. I am merely indulging Verona in one of her absurd whims. You understand that, I trust?"

  "I get your idea," says I, "and even if it don't swell my chest any, I'm ——"

  "Kindly refrain from using such patois," says Aunty.

  "Eh?" says I. "You mean ditch the gabby talk? All right, Ma'am."

  Aunty rolls her eyes and sighs hopeless. "How my niece can find entertainment in such ——" Here Aunty stops and shrugs her shoulders. "Well," she goes on, "it is a mystery to me."

  "Me too," says I; "so for once we're playin' on the same side of the net, ain't we? Say, but she's some girl though!"

  Aunty's mouth corners wrinkle into one of them sarcastic smiles that's her specialty, and she remarks careless: "Quite a number of young men seem to have discovered that Verona is rather attractive."

  "They'd have to be blind in both eyes and born without ears if they didn't," says I, "believe me!"

  Oh, yes, we had a nice confidential little chat, me and Aunty did, — almost chummy, you know, — and as it breaks up and I backs out into the hall, givin' her the polite "Good evenin', Ma 'am," I thought I heard a half-smothered snicker behind the draperies. Maybe it was that flossy French maid of theirs. But I floats downtown as gay and chirky as though I'd been promoted to first vice-president of something.

  Course I was wise to the fact that Aunty wasn't arrangin' any duo act with the lights shaded soft. Not her! Even if I had an official ratin' in the Corrugated now, and a few weeks back had shunted her off from a losin' stock deal, she wa'n't tryin' to decoy me into the fam'ly. Hardly! I could guess how she'd set the stage for my weekly call, and if I found myself with anything more than a walk-on part in a mob scene I'd be lucky.

  You know she's taken a house for the winter, one of them old-fashioned brownstone fronts up on Madison-ave. that some friends of hers was goin' to close durin' a tour abroad. Nothin' swell, but real comfy and substantial, and as I marches up bold for my first push at the bell button I'm kind of relieved that I don't have to stand in line.

  Who should I get a glimpse of, though, as I'm handin' my things to the butler, but the favored candidate, Sappy Westlake? Yep, big as life, with his slick, pale hair, his long legs, and his woodeny face! Looked like his admission card must have been punched for eight P.M., or else he'd been asked for dinner. Anyway, he was right on the ground, thumpin' out a new rag on the piano, and enjoyin' the full glare of the limelight. The only other entry I can discover is a girl.

  "My friend Miss Ull," explains Vee.

  A good deal of a queen Miss Ull is too, tall and slim and tinted up delicate, but one of these poutin', peevish beauts that can look you over cold and distant and say "Howdy do" in such a bored, tired tone that you feel like apologizin' for the intrusion.

  They didn't get wildly enthusiastic over my entrance, Miss Ull and Westy. In fact, almost before the honors are done they turns their backs on me and drifts to the piano once more.

  "Do play that 'Try-trimmer-Traumerei' thing again," urges Miss Ull, and begins to hum it as Westy proceeds to bang it out.

  But there's Vee, her wheat-colored hair fluffin' about her seashell ears and her big gray eyes watchin' me sort of quizzin' and impish "Well, Mr. Private Secretary?" says she.

  "When does the rest of the chorus come on?" says I.

  "The what?" says Vee.

  "The full panel," says I. "Aunty's planned to have the S.R.O. sign out on my evenin's, ain't she?"

  At which Vee tosses her head. "How silly!" says she. "No one else is expected that I know of. Why?"

  "Oh, she might think we'd be lonesome," says I. "Honest, I was lookin' for a bunch; but if it's only a mixed foursome, that ain't so bad. I got the scheme, though. She counts Westy as better than a crowd. 'Safety First' is her motto. But who's the Peevish Priscilla here, that's so tickled to see me come in she has to turn away to hide her emotion?"

  "Doris?" says Vee. "Oh, we got to know her on the steamer coming back from the Mediterranean last winter. Stunning, isn't she?"

  "Specially her manners," says I. "Almost paralyzin'."

  "Oh, that's just her way," says Vee. "Really, she's very nice when you get to know her. I'm rather sorry for her too. Her home life is — well, not at all congenial. That's one reason why I asked her to visit me for a week or so."

  "That's the easiest thing you do, ain't it," says I, "bein' nice to folks that ain't used to it?"

  "Thank goodness," says Vee, "someone has discovered my angelic qualities at last! Go on, Torchy, think of some more, can't you?" And she claps her hands enthusiastic.

  "Quit your spoofin'," says I, "or I'll ring for Aunty and tell how you've been kiddin' the guest of honor. I might talk easier too, if we could adjourn to the window alcove over there. No rule against that, is there?"

  Didn't seem to be. And we'd have had a perfectly good chat if it hadn't been for Doris. Such a restless young female! First she wants to drum something out on the piano herself. Then she must have Vee come show her how it ought to go. Next she wants to practice a new fancy dance, and so on. She keeps Westy trottin' around, and Vee comin' and goin', and things stirred up gen'rally. One minute she's gigglin' hysterical over nothin' at all, and the next she's poutin' sulky.

  Anyway, she managed to queer the best part of the evenin', and I'd just settled down with Vee in a corner when the big hall clock starts to chime ten, and in through the draperies marches Aunty. It ain't any accidental droppin' in, either. She glances at me stern and suggestive and nods towards the door. So it was all over!

  "Say," I whispers to Vee as I does a draggy exit, "if Doris is to be with us again, would you mind my bringin' a clothesline and ropin' her to the piano?"

  Maybe it wa'n't some discouragin' a week later to find the same pair still on the job, with Doris as much of a peace disturber as ever. I got a little more of her history sketched out by Vee that night. Seems that Doris didn't really belong, for all her airs. Her folks had only lived up in the West 70's for four or five years, and before that ——

  "Well, you know," says Vee, archin' her eyebrows expressive, "on the East Side somewhere."

  You see, Father had been comin' strong in business of late, — antiques and house decoratin'. I remember havin' seen the name over the door of his big Fifth-ave. shop, — Leo Ull. You know there's about five hundred per cent. profit in that game when you get it goin', and while Pa Ull might have started small, in an East 14th Street basement, with livin' rooms in the rear, he kept branchin' out, — gettin' to Fourth-ave., and fin'lly to Fifth, jumpin' from a flat to an apartment, and from that to a reg'lar house.

  So the two boys went to college, and later on little Doris, with long braids down her back and weeps in her eyes, is sent off to a girls' boardin' school. By the time her turn came too, the annual income was runnin' into six figures. Besides, Doris was the pet. And when Pa and Ma Ull sat down to pick out a young ladies' culture fact'ry for her the process was simple. They discarded all but three of the catalogues, savin' them that was printed on the thickest paper and havin' the most halftone pictures, and then put the tag on the one where the rates was highest. Near Washington, I think it was; anyway, somewhere South, — board and tuition, two thousand dollars and up; everything extra, from lead pencils to lessons in court etiquette; and the young ladies limited to ten new evenin' dresses a term.

  Maybe you've seen products of such exclusive establishments, And if you have perhaps you can frame up a faint picture of what Doris was like after four years at Hetherington Hall and a five months' trip abroad chaperoned by the Baroness Parcheezi. No wonder she didn't find home a happy spot after that!

  "Her brothers are quite nice, I believe," says Vee. "They're both married, though. Mr. Ull is not so bad, either, — a little crude perhaps; but he has learned to wear a frock coat in the shop and not to talk to lady customers when he has a cigar between his teeth. But Mrs. Ull — well, she hasn't kept up, that's all."

  "Still on East 14th Street, eh?" says I.

  Vee admits that nearly states the case. "And of course," she goes on, "she doesn't understand Doris. They don't get on at all well. So when Doris told me how lonely and unhappy she was at home and begged me to visit her for a week in return — well, what could I do? I'm going back with her Monday."

  "Then," says I, "I see where I cut next Friday off the calendar."

  "Unless," suggests Vee, droppin' her long eyelashes coy, "you were not too stupid to think of ——"

  "Say," I breaks in, "gimme that number again, will you? Suppose I could duck meetin' Westy if I came the first evenin'?"

  "If you're at all afraid of him, you shouldn't run the risk," comes back Vee.

  "Chance is my middle name," says I. "Only him stickin' around does make a room so crowded. I didn't know but he might miss a night occasionally."

  Vee sticks the tip of her tongue out. "Just two during the last ten days, if you want to know," says she.

  "Huh!" says I. "Must think he holds a season ticket."

  I couldn't make out, either, what it was that Vee seems so amused over; for as near as I can judge she was never very strong for Sappy herself. Maybe it was just a string she was handin' me.

  Havin' decided on that, I waits patient until eight-fifteen Monday evenin', and then breezes cheery and hopeful through the Ulls' front door and into the front room. No Westy in sight, or anybody else. The maid says the young ladies are in somewhere, and she'll tell 'em I've come.

  So I wanders about amongst the furniture, that's set around almost as thick as in a showroom, — heavy, fancy pieces, most likely ones that had been sent up from the store as stickers. The samples of art on the walls struck me as a bit gaudy too, and I was tryin' to guess how it would seem if you had to live in that sort of clutter continual, when out through the slidin' doors from the lib'ry appears Sappy the Constant.

  "The poor prune!" thinks I. "I wonder if I've got time to work up some scheme of puttin' the skids under him?"

  But instead of givin' me the haughty stare as usual he rushes towards me smilin' and excited. "Oh, I say!" he breaks out. "Torchy, isn't it? Well, I — I've got a big piece of news."

  "I know," says I. "Someone's told you that the Panama Canal's full of water."

  "No, no!" says he. "It — it's about me. Just happened, you know. And really I must tell someone."

  I had a choky sensation in my throat about then, and my breath came a little short; but I managed to get out husky, "Well, toss it over."

  Westy beams grateful. "Isn't it wonderful?" says he. "I — I've got her!"

  "Eh?" I gasps, grippin' a chair back.

  "She just told me," says he, "in there. She's — she's wearing my ring now."

  Got me right under the belt buckle, that did. I felt wabbly and dizzy for a second, and I expect I gawps at him open faced. Then I takes a brace. Had to. I don't know how well I did it either, or how convincin' it sounded, but I found myself shakin' him by the mitt and sayin': "Congratulations, Westlake. You — you've got a girl worth gettin', believe me!"

  "Thanks awfully, old man," says he, still pumpin' my arm up and down. "I can hardly realize it myself. Awfully bad case I had, you know. And now, while I have the courage, I suppose I'd best see her mother."

  "Wha-a-at?" says I, starin' at him.

  "I know," says he, "it isn't being done much nowadays, but somehow I think I ought. You know I haven't even met Mrs. Ull as yet."

  I hope he was so fussed he didn't notice that sigh of relief I let out; for I'll admit it was some able-bodied affair, — a good deal like shuttin' off the air in a brake connection, or rippin' a sheet. Anyway, I made up for it the next minute.

  "You and Doris, eh?" says I, poundin' him on the back hearty. "Ain't you the foxy pair, though? Well, well! Here, let's have another shake on that. But why not see Father and tell him about it? Know the old gent, don't you?"

  "Ye-e-es," says Westy, flushin' a bit. "But he — well, he's her father, of course. She can't help that. And it makes no difference at all to me if he isn't really refined — not a bit. But — but I'd rather not talk to him just now. I — I prefer to see Mrs. Ull."

  I can't say just what I felt so friendly and fraternal to him about then; but I did. "Westy," says I, "take my advice about this hunch of yours to see Mother. Don't!"

  "But really," he insists, "I must tell one or the other, don't you see. And unless I do it right away I know I never can at all. Besides I've made up my mind that Mrs. Ull ought to be the first to know. I — I'm going to ring for the maid and ask to see her."

  "Good nerve!" says I, slappin' him on the shoulder. "In that case I'll just slip into the back room there and shut the door."

  "Oh, I say!" says he, glancin' around panicky. "I — I wish you'd stay. I — I don't fancy facing her alone. Please stay!"

  "It ain't reg'lar," says I.

  "I don't care," says Westy, pleadin'. "You could sort of introduce me, you know, and — and help me out if I got stuck. You would, wouldn't you?"

  And it was amazin' how diff'rent I felt towards Westy from five minutes before. His best friend couldn't have looked on him fonder, or promised to stand by him closer. I calls the maid myself, discovers that Mrs. Ull is in the upstairs sittin' room, and sends the message that Mr. Westlake would like to see her right off about something important.

  "But you got to buck up, my boy," says I; "for from all the dope I've had you've got a jolt comin' to you."

  That wa'n't any idle rumor, either. He'd hardly begun pacin' restless in and out among the chairs and tables before we hears a heavy pad-pad on the stairs, and the next thing we know the lady is standin' in the door.

  Not such an awful stout old party as I'd looked for, nor she didn't have such a bad face; but with the funny way she has her hair bobbed up, and the weird way her dress fits her, like it had been cut out left-handed in a blind asylum — well, she's a mess, that's all. It's an expensive lookin' outfit too, and the jew'lry display around her lumpy neck and on her pudgy fingers was enough to make you blink; but somehow it all looked out of place.

  For a second she stands there fingerin' her rings fidgety, and then remarks unexpected: "It's about Doris, ain't it? Well, young feller, what is it you got on your mind?"

  And all of a sudden I tumbles to the fact that she's lookin' straight at me. Then it was my turn to go panicky. "Excuse me, Ma 'am," says I hasty, "but that's the guilty party, the one over by the fireplace. Mr. Westlake, Ma'am."

  "Oh!" says she. "That one, eh? Well, let's have it!" and with that she paddles over to a high-backed, carved mahogany chair and settles herself sort of grim and defiant. I almost had to push Westy to the front too.

   "I expect you've talked this all over with her father, eh?" she goes on. "I'm always the last to get wise to anything that goes on in this house, specially if it's about Doris. Come, let's have it!"

  "But I haven't seen Mr. Ull at all," protests Westy. "It — it's just happened. And I thought you ought to know first. I want to ask you, Mrs. Ull, if I may marry Doris?"

  We wa'n't lookin' for what come next, either of us; her big red face had such a hard, sullen look on it, like she knew we was sizin' her up and meant to show us she didn't give a hoot what we thought. But as Westy finishes and bows real respectful, holdin' out his hand friendly, the change come. The hard lines around her mouth softens, the narrowed eyes widen and light up, and her stiff under jaw gets trembly. A tear or so trickles foolish down the side of her nose; but she don't pay any attention. She's just starin' at Westy.

  "You — you wanted me to know first, did you?" says she, with a break in her shrill, cackly voice. "Me?"

  "I thought it only right," says Westy. "You're Doris's mother, you know, and ——"

  "Good boy!" says she, reachin' out after one of his hands and pattin' it. "I'm glad you did too. Doris, she's got too fine for her old mother. That ain't so much her fault as it is mine, I expect. I'm kind of rough, and a good deal behind the times. I ain't kept up, not even the way Leo has. But then, I ain't had the chance. I've been at home, lookin' after the boys and — and Doris. I saw she was gettin' spoiled; but I didn't have the heart to bring her home and stop it. She's young, though. She'll get over it. You'll help her. Oh, I know about you. Quite a young swell, you are; but I guess you're all right. And I'm glad for Doris. Maybe too, she'll find out some day that her rough old mother, who got left so far behind, thinks a lot of her still. You — you'll tell her as much some time perhaps. Won't you?"

  Say, take it from me, I was so misty in the eyes about then, and so choky under my collar, that I couldn't have done it myself. But Westy did. There's a heap more to him than shows on the outside.

  "Mrs. Ull," says he, "I shall tell Doris all of that, and much more. And I'm sure that both of us are going to be very fond of you. And if you don't mind, I'm going to begin now to call you Mother."

  Yes, I was gettin' a little uneasy at that stage. I hadn't counted on bein' let in for quite such a close fam'ly scene. And when the two girls showed up with their arms locked about each other, and Vee leads Doris up to Mother Ull, and they goes to a three-cornered clinch sobbin' on one another's shoulder — well, I faded.

  On the way home I was struck by a sudden thought that trickled all the way down my spine like a splinter of ice. "If I ever had the luck to get that far," thinks I, "would I have to go through any such an act with Aunty? Hel-lup, Hubert! Hel-lup!"

(End of chapter seven.)

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