"Haven't you any coffee spoons, Kitty? I thought you had a couple of dozen when you went to housekeeping."
Marcia, with her sleeves rolled up from her round white arms, was rummaging in the sideboard, as she knelt beside it on the floor, her brown eyes peering into the corners.
"Yes, of course I have coffee spoons. Aren't they there? I'm sure I don't know what becomes of things."
Young Mrs. Fosdyke, stout and matronly, held a fat and placid year-old baby on her lap with one arm, while with the other hand she lunged out intermittently to pick up a much-chewed rubber dog cast upon the floor by the infant. "Oh, now I remember; they're at the bank, with the rest of the silver—we sent them there the summer we went to the seashore, and forgot to take them out again. I know it's dreadful to get in the habit of living in this picnic fashion; I'm ashamed sometimes to have any one come here. Not that I mind your having asked Mrs. Devereaux for Thanksgiving, Marcia; I don't want you to feel that way for a minute. I think it was nice of you to want to. If you don't mind having her here, I'm sure I don't. You know I've had such a time changing servants; and when you have three babies—"
Mrs. Fosdyke was accustomed to anticipate possible astonishment at the size of her young family by stating tersely to begin with that the three were all of the same age; if this were not literally true, it was true enough to account for the disposal of most of her time. In a small house, on a small income, with one maid, all departments can not receive attention; under such circumstances something has to go. Mrs. Fosdyke's attention went, rightly enough, to the children; there were no graces of management left for the household—there couldn't be; that was one reason why she never invited company any more. She felt apologetic even before her sister.
"I wish things were a little nicer here—but I know just how you feel about Mrs. Devereaux. No matter how rich a person is, it seems sort of desolate to be alone at a hotel in a small town on a holiday—Thanksgiving Day especially. And she was so good to you in Paris. I shall never forget it."
"I'm sure I never shall," said Marcia.
She saw with retrospective vision the scene of two years ago, when she, a terrified girl of twenty, just recovering from an illness, had missed connections with her party at a railway station, and had been blessedly taken in charge by a stranger whose spoken name carried recognition with it to any American abroad. Marcia had been taken to Mrs. Devereaux's luxurious house for the day, put to bed, comforted, telegrams and messages sent hither and thither to her friends; truly it was the kind of a thing one does not forget, that must claim gratitude forever.
She went on now: "I can't get over our meeting in the street here in this place, just the day we both came—the strangest coincidence! I could hardly believe my eyes. And then to drive back to her rooms with her and find myself telling her all I've been doing, just as if I had known her always—I'm sure, though, I feel as if I had. I do want to do something for her so much—it doesn't make any real difference, her being so rich and grand. And then I thought of our Thanksgiving dinner, and she seemed so pleased, and accepted at once. Of course she stipulated that we were to promise not to make any difference on her account, but I do want to have everything as pretty and characteristic as possible. And you needn't bother a bit about anything, Kitty. I'll do all the work, and there's a whole week to get ready in. We'll have Frank bring your wedding silver from the bank; you had so many lovely large pieces."
"I had ten cut glass and silver loving cups," annotated Kitty, in the tone of injury the recollection always produced in the light of her present needs. "It will take you hours and days to clean all those things, Marcia; that's why I never use them. When you have three babies all the same age—"
"Kersley will help me," said Marcia, deftly introducing another subject.
"Kersley!" There was deep surprise in Kitty's voice; she turned to fix her eyes on her sister. Marcia flushed independently of her will.
"Yes—didn't I tell you? He's coming out to his brother's over Thanksgiving."
"Oh!" said Kitty, with significance; she made a precipitate lunge for the rubber dog. There was an alert tone in her voice when she spoke again:
"How long is this thing to go on? Are you engaged to Kersley Battersby, or are you not? For if you're not, I don't think it's decent to keep him dangling on in this way any longer."
"Oh, Kitty, do stop!" Marcia ceased her investigations to relapse into a jumbled heap on the rug, her chin resting on her hand, her dark, vivacious little face tense. "I suppose I do consider that I'm engaged, if you will have me say it; he's the only man I could ever care for, but I'm not going to let him know it, not until he gets on his feet—not while he's only making fifteen dollars here and twenty dollars there, and some weeks not even that, painting labels for tomato cans and patent medicines. It does seem a pity that, after all the studying in Paris and winning the prize for his portraits in the Salon, it should take him so long to get a start here. I suppose you have to have a 'pull,' as in everything else. If he once knew that I really cared for him he'd lose his head and want to be married out of hand. I couldn't do a thing with him. He'd insist that it would help him to work if I were near all the time."
"Perhaps it would," suggested Kitty.
"Yes, and have all his family say that I've ruined his prospects—you can imagine how pleasant that would be! Everyone says that if a poor artist is hampered at the beginning he has no career at all. I enjoy things as they are, anyway, and if Kersley doesn't it's his own lookout. He's a perfect baby, great, big, blue-eyed, ridiculous, unpractical thing! What do you suppose he did when he was in Chester last month, just after I'd left there? Walked all the way into town and back, twenty miles—he hadn't enough money for his car fare—to buy me a little trumpery pin I wanted, when they had the identical thing on sale at the little shop by the station! Wasn't that like him? And with all his artistic talent, I have to tell him what kind of a necktie to get. Imagine him, with his hair, in a scarlet one, when he looks so adorable in dull blue. Let's change the subject. Is this your best centerpiece, with the color all washed out?"
"Then I'll finish that lace one I'm making and put yellow under it. Yellow is to be the color scheme, Kitty. I'm going to present you with some of those lovely glasses I saw at Ketterer's, with gilt flowers on them. I want you to let me pay for the chrysanthemums and all the extras—a few palms can be hired; they add so much to the effect. You know I got the money for those illustrations yesterday, and I don't care whether I have any clothes or not. I just want to do my prettiest for a Thanksgiving for Mrs. Devereaux."
"Very well, dear," said Kitty.
"I should think that woman wouldn't want such a time made over her," said Mr. Fosdyke to his wife, disgustedly, in private. There are married men who may on occasion be mistaken for bachelors, but Mr. Fosdyke was not of that ilk; the respectable bondage of one wedded to family claims was stamped upon him as with a die, in spite of a humorous tendency that was sometimes trying to his wife. "What's the sense? With all her millions she must be used to everything. I should think she'd like something plain and homelike for a change, instead of all this fuss and feathers. I'm worn out with it already. There seems to be a perfect upheaval downstairs, with all Marcia's decorations and color schemes and 'artistic effects.' My arm's broken lugging loving cups home from the bank—they weigh a ton. Why can't Mrs. Devereaux take us as we are?"
"Now, Frank, I've told you how Marcia feels about it," said his wife, reprovingly. "You know how intense she is—it gives her positive satisfaction to show her gratitude by working her fingers off and spending all the money she's got. She wants to make it a special occasion."
"Well, she's doing it," said Frank Fosdyke, with, however, a relenting smile; he was fond of whole-souled little Marcia. "I say, though, Kitty, what's Kersley doing here all the time? I thought he was living in New York. I can't go anywhere that I don't see that big smile of his and the gray suit. I'm always running across him with Marcia. It makes me feel like a fool. Am I to treat them as if they were engaged, or not?"
Mrs. Fosdyke shook her head. "Not yet."
"Can't he stop her shillyshallying?"
"Frank, I said 'Not yet.'"
"All right," said Frank, resignedly, moving around the darkened room, as he disrobed, with the catlike step of one whose ever haunting fear is that he may wake the baby.
Marcia had decreed against the old-fashioned, middle-of-the-day Thanksgiving dinner; half-past seven was early enough. "And it ought to be eight," she added, ruefully. "At any rate, the babies will be asleep, and Mrs. Fogarty is going to let her Maggie come and sit upstairs with them. Thank goodness, Ellen can cook the dinner, with my help, and wait on the table afterward. She's as nice and interested as she can be, and I'll keep her in good humor. I've promised to buy her a lovely new cap and apron. We've just decided what to have for the nine courses."
"Now, Kitty, it's no more trouble to have nine courses than two, if you manage properly. I'll make a number of the dishes the day before, and Ellen can see to the turkey herself; I'll show you my bill of fare afterward. I'm going to have the loveliest little menu cards, with golden pumpkins in wheat sheaves painted on them—so nice and Thanksgivingy! You've seen the yellow paper cases I've made for the ice pudding, and the candle shades—the color scheme, you know, is yellow. I'm going to ornament the dishes for the almonds and raisins and olives and the candied ginger and other things in the same way. Now, please don't worry about anything, Kitty! If people only make the arrangements beforehand, it's no trouble at all. It's all in the way one plans, and having a system about things."
"I hope so," said Mrs. Fosdyke; for she had her misgivings. In housekeeping it is only too often that two and two fail to make four.
Kersley Battersby, tall and handsome, coming in gayly at four o'clock on Thanksgiving afternoon, during a brief interval of the festivities at his brother's house, stopped short at the sight of Marcia's face.
"What's up?" he asked, reaching out his arms with the unconsciousness of habit, while Marcia, in her blue gingham gown, as mechanically retreated. Her tone was tragic.
"Ellen says she won't wait on the table; she says there's work for ten in the kitchen, and no lady would ask it of her. And I had it all arranged so beautifully. I don't know what we're to do. Kitty and I have been busy every minute, and Frank has had to take care of the babies all day. I didn't mean to make everyone so uncomfortable. He's gone out now, and she's upstairs with a headache."
"Well, you know you've always got me to fall back on," said Kersley, firmly. "My word, but the dining-room looks fine, though! I wouldn't know it for the same place." His gaze rested on the pretty scene with genuine admiration.
Loving cups in the corner of the room held the tall, yellow chrysanthemums against the florist's palms; yellow chrysanthemums waved from the vine-draped mantel and drooped from the prettiest loving cup of all over the yellow-lined lace centerpiece set on the satin-smooth "best" tablecloth. The silver was polished to perfection. The new goblets with their gilt flowers shone like bubbles, and on the sideboard a golden pumpkin hollowed into a dish among trailing vines was heaped high with yellow oranges and crimson apples and pearly hothouse grapes.
"Oh, yes, this is all right," sighed Marcia, "and the cooking is, and Frank has had his dress suit pressed and Kitty's gown is dear. But, Kersley, the dinner!" Her swimming eyes looked at him helplessly as she pushed back her disheveled hair. "You can't have nine courses with no one to serve them. Ellen even refuses to bring anything in. We can't get up and keep running around the table! It makes the whole thing a failure—worse than that, ridiculous. I didn't mind how hard I worked for dear Mrs. Devereaux, but I did want it all to be right."
"Poor girl!" said Kersley, tenderly, moving sympathetically very, very near her, with a repetition of the arm movement. "You're tired."
"Now, Kersley, please don't." Marcia again retreated with glowing cheeks. She tried to keep an unexpected tremulousness out of her voice. "I have enough on my mind without having you, too. If I were to spoil all your prospects now, I'd never forgive myself."
"You get so in the habit of saying that absurd thing," began Kersley, doggedly, "that—Never mind, never mind, Marcia dear. I won't bother you now. But you'll have to let me have my way in one thing, anyway—I'm going to help you out; I'm going to stay and wait on the table myself."
"I'll make a bang-up waiter; do it in style."
"Just pretend I'm the butler. It's been done lots of times before, you know; it's not a bit original. And I'd like to do something for Mrs. Devereaux, too, good old multi-millionairess. I owe her one for being such a trump to you. I'll make her one of my omelets, too, if Ellen will let me."
"But Mrs. Devereaux will recognize you!" Marcia felt wildly that she was half assenting, in spite of the absurdity of it.
"Recognize the butler? She won't know that he exists except to pass her things. Besides, she's only seen me a couple of times."
"But the family party at your brother's?"
"They'll have to get along without me. I'll cut back now and tell them, and get my dress suit, and then I'll turn myself loose in your kitchen. It's all decided, Marcia." He smiled brilliantly down at her from the height of his six feet, as Kersley could smile sometimes, when he wanted to get his own way. His finger tips touched her curling locks on his way past the ottoman upon which she had dropped.
She sat there after he had gone, her chin supported by her hand, her dark eyes looking intently before her into the yellow chrysanthemum. In spite of her boast to Kitty that she was satisfied with "things as they were," there were moments when a long-drawn-out future of joy withheld pressed upon little Marcia with strange heaviness—moments when it was hard to be always wise for two; there were, indeed, sudden, inexplicable moments when she longed weakly to give herself up to the alluring blissfulness of Kersley's kisses on her soft lips, no matter how unpractical he was. But she was too stanchly eager to do what was best for him to give way in the conduct of life; it was even a giddy sort of thing that she had given way to him in anything.
If a nervous and uncertain hilarity characterized the atmosphere of the dinner table that night, Mrs. Devereaux, in her black lace and diamonds, was happily unaware of its cause in the antics of the obsequious butler, who in the intervals of his calling threw kisses from behind the guest to the yellow-gowned Marcia, attempted to poise in the attitude of flight or that of benediction, or indulged in other pantomimes as extraordinary.
It was almost a relief when the intervals between the courses were unduly prolonged and conversation could proceed without spasmodic jerks on the part of the entertainers. Mrs. Devereaux herself, a rather slight, elderly woman with soft white hair elaborately arranged, and kind, brown eyes, responded with evident pleasure to Marcia's pretty, childlike warmth, and was politely cordial to Frank and Kitty. Her manner was at once quietly assured and quietly unassuming, although on her entrance her eyes had seemed furtively observant, as one who found herself among strange, if interesting, surroundings.
"I feel as if we might be Eskimos, by Jove!" Frank Fosdyke whispered with a secret gurgle to his wife, who responded only with an agonized "Hush!"
"This omelet is really delicious," said Mrs. Devereaux, kindly, in one of the pauses of the dinner. "I don't know that I have eaten one as good since I left Paris. May I ask if you have a woman or a man cook?"
"We have a man in the kitchen," said Marcia, unblushingly, Kersley being out there at the moment. "He has lived in Paris."
"Oh, the touch was unmistakable!" said Mrs. Devereaux. She turned graciously to Kitty. "I take a great interest in small establishments; my niece, Angela Homestead, is about to marry in moderate circumstances. Unlike many women in society, I have always looked after my own household. When I am at home the servants report to me for half an hour every morning to receive their orders for the day. So when Angela naturally came to me for advice, I said to her: 'Above all things, Angela, remember that a good cook is always worth what you pay for him.' The health of the family is so largely dependent on the food. With a French cook, a butler, a laundress and three maids, a simple establishment for two people can be kept up decently and in order; a retinue of servants is not necessary when you do not entertain. Of course, with less than three maids it is impossible to be clean."
"No, indeed," said Kitty.
"I should think not," assented Mr. Fosdyke, with unnecessary ardor.
"It is pleasant to have you agree with me," said Mrs. Devereaux, politely. "But, speaking of Paris, oddly enough, since we've been sitting here I have been reminded forcibly, though I can't imagine why, of a young man whom I met there a couple of times over a year ago—a tall, blond young artist who won a prize at the Salon. I haven't heard of him since, though he seemed to have rather unusual talent. I believe he left for New York. I can't recall his name, but perhaps you can help me to it. He painted children very fetchingly."
"Was it Kersley Battersby?" asked Marcia, with a swift frown at the owner of the name, who had doubled over suddenly.
"Kersley Battersby. The very man!" exclaimed Mrs. Devereaux, with animation. "How clever you are, my dear, to guess it! My sister, the Countess of Crayford, who has just come over this autumn, wants some one to paint her twin girls. It strikes me that he would be the very person to do it, if possibly you have his address. There was a sentiment, a bloom, one might call it, that seemed to characterize his children's heads particularly. They made a real impression on me."
"Yes, Battersby has a great deal of bloom," said Mr. Fosdyke, solemnly. "Bloom is what he excels in. Alphonse, fill Mrs. Devereaux's glass. I will look up his address in my notebook, Mrs. Devereaux. I have an impression that he is within reach."
He turned to Marcia provocatively, but she did not respond. Her brain was suddenly in a whirl that carried her past the wild incongruities of the situation. If Kersley had "prospects" like that—She did not dare to meet his eyes.
The dinner was excellent, the waiting perfect. Marcia was in a glow of happiness. She felt repaid for her work, her struggles, and the expenditure which would make a new gown this winter impossible. This was as she had wanted it to be—a little Thanksgiving feast for this woman who was her friend. Through all Mrs. Devereaux's interest in the others, the little inner bond was between her and Marcia. It did not matter that Ellen had stumped upstairs after the last cup of coffee, leaving Kersley to clear the table, or that the babies might wake up and cry. Nothing mattered when she knew that dear Mrs. Devereaux was pleased. She said to herself that this was what gave her such a strangely exhilarated feeling; and yet—When it was time for the guest to depart, and Marcia came from upstairs bringing Mrs. Devereaux's fur cloak, that lady and Kitty both looked smilingly at the girl from the midst of a conversation.
"Must you go so soon?" pleaded Marcia.
"Yes, the carriage is waiting," said Mrs. Devereaux. "I am under the doctor's orders, you remember, my dear. I've had a charming Thanksgiving; you don't know how much I appreciate Mrs. Fosdyke's letting me spend it here. And one thing has appealed to me particularly, if you won't mind my saying it: I am more complimented, more touched, by being made one of your little family circle, without any alteration in your usual mode of living, than by any amount of the ceremony which is often so foolishly considered necessary—a man behind each chair, masses of orchids, and expensive menus." She smiled warmly at Marcia, and added: "It is to you that I really owe my introduction into this charmingly domestic household. Your sister, however, has made me partner to a little secret, in response to my inquiries; she says that you are about to be engaged to the very Mr. Battersby of whom we were speaking, and whose address she has given me, so that I may make arrangements at once for my nieces' portraits. She tells me that he has excellent prospects."
"Oh!" murmured Marcia, in sudden crimson embarrassment. She could actually feel Kersley's triumphant smile behind the dining-room portières.
"And as I am about to start on the Egyptian tour that will take me away for a year, I want to know if I may take advantage of having been made one of the family and ask you to make use of my cottage at Ardsley for the honeymoon—which I hope may last until my return, if Mr. Battersby's commissions don't call him away before. I will have my people put it at your disposal."
"Dear, dear Mrs. Devereaux!" cried Marcia. If something odd in the beating of her heart made her feel her further speech to be foolishly incoherent, it was, perhaps, not unattractively so to her smiling elders.
She did not hear Mr. Fosdyke's exclamation as the lights of Mrs. Devereaux's carriage disappeared from view: "Of all the Arabian Nights' entertainments! Who am I, anyway?"
She had been drawn into the dining-room with Kersley's outstretched arms closing around her firmly as she mechanically but ineffectually strove to retreat, his blue eyes beaming down on her as he whispered:
"Oh, Marcia, Marcia! This comes of trying to show gratitude to strangers. 'About to be engaged!' Accepting a honeymoon cottage before you'd accepted the man!"