"Look out of the window, Judith! Quick! Mrs. Avery is going away!" Judith Windham, bending over the sewing-machine in her bedroom, started as her little sister's voice came piping shrilly up the stairs, and leaving her chair she leaned out of the old-fashioned casement window.
There were so few goings and comings in sleepy little Westbrooke, that the passing of the village omnibus was an exciting event. With an imposing rumble of yellow wheels it rattled up to Doctor Allen's gate across the road. A trunk, a dress suit case, and numerous valises were hoisted to the top of it, and the doctor's family flocked down to the gate to watch the departure of the youngest member of their household, Marguerite.
It had been four years since the first time they watched her go away, a nineteen-year-old bride. Since then they had visited her, severally and collectively, in her elegant apartments in Washington, but this had been her first visit home. Judith, watching her flutter down the walk with her hand in the old doctor's, thought she looked even prettier and more girlish than on her wedding-day. Married life had been all roses for Marguerite.
"She's the same dear old harum-scarum Daisy she always was, in spite of the efforts of her Lord Chesterfield of a husband to reform her," thought Judith, fondly, as her old schoolmate, catching sight of her at the window, waved her parasol so wildly that the staid old 'bus horses began to plunge.
The girls had bidden each other good-bye the night before, but Marguerite stopped in the midst of her final embracings to call out, "Good-bye, again, Judith. Remember, I shall expect you the first of February." Then the slender figure in its faultless tailor-made gown disappeared into the omnibus. Her husband, a distinguished, scholarly man, lifted his hat once more and stepped in after her. The door banged behind them, and, creaking and swaying, the ancient vehicle moved off in a cloud of dust.
Feeling that something very bright and interesting had dropped out of her life, Judith went back to the sewing-machine. As she picked up her work an involuntary sigh escaped her.
"That's a very sorry sound, Judith. Are you tired?"
It was a sympathetic voice that asked the question, and Judith looked up with a smile. Her mother's cousin stood in the doorway--a prim little old spinster, who had been their guest for several days. Like Marguerite, she, too, had come back to her native village after an absence of four years, but not to her father's house. She was all alone in the world, save for a few distant relatives who called her Cousin Barbara. After a short visit, she would go away for another long absence, but not, like Marguerite, to a life full of many interests and pleasures. She had only her music pupils in a little Pennsylvania mining town, and a room in a boarding-house.
"Come in, Cousin Barbara," said Judith, cordially. "I was sighing over Marguerite's departure. You know she was my best friend at school, and I have missed her so much since her marriage. The other girls in our class have all gone away to teach or take positions somewhere, except the two who married and settled down here in Westbrooke; and they have such different interests now. All they can talk about is their housekeeping or their babies. Most of the boys have gone away, too. I don't wonder. Anybody with any ambition would get away from such a place if it were within the range of possibilities."
Cousin Barbara had seated herself in a low rocking-chair and was pulling the basting threads from a finished garment. "Listen!" she said, "isn't that Amy calling again?" An excited little voice came shrilly up the stairs.
"Look, Judith! Mrs. Avery is coming back again! What do you suppose is the matter?"
The omnibus dashing down the road stopped suddenly at the gate opposite. The door burst open, and the dignified Mr. Avery, in undignified haste, ran breathlessly toward the house, while Marguerite called out a laughing explanation to her friend at the window.
"I left my watch on the dressing-table and my purse with my trunk keys in it, and we've only six minutes to catch the train. Isn't that just my way? Look at Algernon run! I wouldn't have believed it of him. Well, it has given me another chance to remind you that you are to come to me in February. You needn't shake your head. I'll not take 'no' for an answer. You're so good at planning, Judith, I'm sure you can arrange it some way."
Then as her husband returned, red-faced and breathless, she leaned out of the 'bus, and laughingly blew an airy kiss from her fingertips.
"That's just like her!" exclaimed Judith. "She's as irresponsible and careless as a child. She was always late to school, and losing her pencils and forgetting her books. We used to call her 'Daisy Dilly-dally.' She's such a dear little butterfly, though, and it doesn't seem possible that we are the same age--twenty-three. I feel like a patriarch beside her."
"So she has invited you to visit her in Washington," began Miss Barbara. "I am glad of that. It will be such a fine change for you."
To her surprise, the gray eyes filled with tears, and in her effort to wink them back Judith did not reply for a moment. Then she answered, lightly, "Yes; it would be a golden opportunity if I could only afford to accept, but the wolf is still at the door, Cousin Barbara. It has stood in the way of everything I ever longed to do. Even when a child I used to hear so much about it that I thought it was a veritable flesh-and-blood wolf. Many a night I slipped out of bed and peered through the curtain, all a-shiver. I wanted to see if its fiery eyeballs were really watching at the door. I wanted to see them if they were there, and yet was terrified to peep out for fear they were. Even now it seems more than a mere figure of speech. Often I dream of having a hand-to-hand struggle with it, but I always conquer it in the end--in my dreams," she added, with a gay little laugh. "And that is a good omen."
That cheery laugh was the key-note of Judith's character, Miss Barbara thought. All her life she had taken the pinch of poverty bravely for the sake of her invalid mother and the three younger sisters whom she was now helping through school. Gradually she had shouldered the heavy responsibilities laid upon her, until she had settled down to a routine of duty, almost hopeless in its monotony. Miss Barbara noted with keen eyes that a careworn look had become the habitual expression of the sweet girlish face, and she sat wishing with all her heart that she were something herself besides a poorly paid little music teacher with the wolf lurking at her own door. As she wound the basting threads on a spool she planned the rose-coloured future Judith should have if it were only in her power to give it.
Judith must have felt the unspoken sympathy, for presently she burst forth: "If I could only go away, just once, and have a real good time, like other girls, just once, while I am young enough to enjoy it, I wouldn't ask anything more. I've never been ten miles outside of Westbrooke, and I'm sure no one ever longed to travel more than I. I never have any company of my own age. Our old set is all gone, and my friends are either elderly people or the school-children who come to see the girls. And they all are so absorbed in the trivial village happenings and neighbourhood gossip.
"What I want is to meet people out in the world who really do things,--men like Mr. Avery, for instance; Daisy is always entertaining distinguished strangers, artists and authors and musicians. Friendship with such cultured, interesting people would broaden the horizon of my whole life. I have a feeling that if I could once get away, it would somehow break the ice, and things would be different ever after." Then she added, with a tinge of bitterness that rarely crept into her voice, "I might as well plan to go to the moon. The round-trip ticket alone, without the sleeping-car berth, would be at least forty dollars, wouldn't it?"
Miss Barbara nodded. "Yes, fully that. It costs me almost that much to go to Packertown and back, and that, you know, is a few hours this side of Washington."
There was silence for several minutes, while Judith, already ashamed of her outburst, stitched twice round the skirt she was making for Amy. Then she said in a cheerful tone that somehow forbade any return to the subject, "Tell me about Packertown, Cousin Barbara. How did you happen to stray off there after a music class?"
The trip to Washington was mentioned no more that summer, but Miss Barbara understood.
It was the middle of September when the old yellow omnibus rolled up for Miss Barbara and her trunk. This time there was no returning in mad haste after forgotten property. With a precision that was almost fussiness, she had packed her trunk days before her departure, and her bonnet was on an hour before train time.
"I can't help it," she said, calmly, when Judith remonstrated. "It's just my way. I have a horror of keeping any one waiting. Habitual disregard of punctuality in the keeping of an engagement or a promise is a sort of dishonesty, in my opinion. I suppose I do carry it to an extreme in minor matters, but it is better to do that than to cause other people needless anxiety and trouble."
Miss Barbara was mounted on her hobby now, and she ambled vigorously along until Amy, with a sigh of relief, announced that she heard wheels. Amy had heard Cousin Barbara's views more than once, when a missing shoe button, a torn glove, or an unanswered note, claimed immediate attention.
"Remember, Judith," said Miss Barbara, at parting, "if anything should happen to make it possible for you to go to Washington, be sure and let me know. I want to arrange for you to stop with me a week on your way." But even as Judith spoke her thanks, she shook her head. She had stopped building air-castles.
Winter came early to Westbrooke. Mrs. Allen ran over occasionally with a letter from Marguerite, who was an erratic correspondent, sometimes sending interesting daily bulletins of sixteen or twenty pages, sometimes breaking a month's silence by only a postal card. They rarely heard from Miss Barbara, but, one snowy day late in January, Amy dashed in from the post-office with a letter to Judith, addressed in her unmistakable precise little hand. She wrote:
"The new year began for me with a great pleasure, Judith dear. An old bill, which I had been unable to collect for so long that I crossed it off my books two years ago, was paid very unexpectedly, and I feel as if I had fallen heir to a dukedom.
"It is enough to enable you to make your visit to Washington and to pay your board in the room next to mine for two weeks. Maybe there will be enough to get the material for a simple evening gown, and you can make it while you are here, or at home. It depends on whether you go first to Mrs. Avery or to me. Write to her at once, please, so that I may know when to expect you.
"Oh, my dear child, you do not know the unalloyed pleasure I have already had in anticipating not only your visit to me, but your good times in Washington. I feel that your enjoyment of the outing, which I would have enjoyed so intensely at your age, will, in a way, compensate me for my starved, unsatisfied girlhood, and I am sure you are too generous to refuse me the pleasure.
"Enclosed you will find the check and a card on which I have written all necessary directions as to railroad connections, time-tables, etc."
No girl of fifteen could have been more enthusiastic in her rapturous expressions of delight than Judith, as she danced into her mother's room, waving the check. Amy looked on in amazement.
"I didn't know that sister could get so excited," she said to her mother, afterwards.
"It is the first great pleasure she has ever had," said Mrs. Windham, with a sigh. "It means far more to her than a trip to Europe would to Marguerite. We all must help her to make the most of it."
It seemed to Judith that all Westbrooke had heard of her proposed journey before night. Neighbours ran in to talk it over and proffer their assistance. The little old trunk that had gone on her mother's wedding journey was brought down, and the family dropped various contributions into it, from Mrs. Windham's well-preserved black silk skirt, to Edith's best stockings. Amy brought her coral pin and only lace-trimmed handkerchief, begging Judith to wear them when she went to the White House. "Then I can tell the girls they've seen the President of the United States," she said, proudly.
Lillian, next in age to Judith, presented her outright with her Christmas gloves. "Mittens are good enough for Westbrooke," she said. "Just bring me a leaf from Mount Vernon and one from Arlington for my memory book. I can hardly realize that you are really going to see such famous places."
Marguerite's letter in response to Judith's news came promptly. She named a long list of sights which she had planned for Judith to see, and mentioned a noted violinist who was to visit Washington the following month and had promised to play at the musicale she intended giving on the sixteenth.
"I am sure you will like that better than anything," she wrote. "Make your visit to Miss Barbara first. I wish I could have you come on the first of February, as I invited you to do, but, unfortunately, Mr. Avery's mother and sisters are with us just now, and they occupy all our spare room. They do not expect to stay long after my cousin's reception on the third, however, and I will write as soon as they leave, and let you know just what day to come."
The first week of Judith's visit in Packertown fairly flew by. Miss Barbara was away much of the time, both morning and afternoon, with her music pupils, but Judith busied herself with the making of the dainty white dinner gown, and wove happy day-dreams while she worked. In the evenings she and Miss Barbara pored over a map of Washington until they could locate all the prominent places of interest, and then Miss Barbara brought out a pile of borrowed magazines
in which were interesting descriptions of those very places, and they took turns in reading aloud.
When the dress was completed they had a little jubilee. Judith wore it one evening, with its dainty flutter of ribbons, for Miss Barbara to admire, and they invited the landlady and her daughter in to have music and toast marshmallows.
"You don't look a day over eighteen," Miss Barbara declared. "You ought to wear white all the time."
"It is given only to saints and the 'lilies that toil not' to do that," answered Judith, gaily. "I am satisfied to be arrayed just on state occasions." And then because she was so happy she seized the little music teacher and waltzed her round and round before the mirror. "It's all your doing, you blessed Cousin Barbara! See how you have metamorphosed me."
Several days later she stood idly turning the calendar. "This is the day of the reception," she said; "the Averys will certainly be going home soon, and I ought to hear from Marguerite."
But no letter came the next day, nor the next, nor all the following week, although she went to the post-office several times daily.
It grew dull waiting, with Miss Barbara gone so much, and with nothing to do. She read the few books at her disposal, she paced up and down in the two little back bedrooms that she and Miss Barbara occupied. She took long walks alone, but the little mining town was even smaller than Westbrooke, and she found scant material with which to fill her letters home.
The two weeks for which she had been invited came to an end, and Judith grew desperate over her fruitless trips to the post-office. She knew that Miss Barbara had just made the payment that was due the Building and Loan Association in which she was putting her little earnings, and would be almost penniless until the end of another term. Besides, she had accepted all that she was willing to take from the hard-worked little music teacher.
"I have packed my trunk and am going home to-morrow, Cousin Barbara," she announced. "Mr. Avery's family have evidently stayed longer than Daisy expected, and she can't have me. Maybe some of them are ill."
"Then she should have written and told you so," said Miss Barbara, waxing so indignant over the neglect of her protégée that she grew eloquent on the subject of her hobby--punctuality, especially in correspondence.
"I suppose you wouldn't want to write again?" she suggested.
But Judith shook her head. "Oh, no, no!" she insisted; "Daisy understands perfectly that I can stay here only two weeks. I explained the situation fully in my letter. I mailed it myself, and I am sure that she received it. And I couldn't thrust myself upon her, you know. She has probably forgotten all about her invitation by this time; this visit doesn't mean as much to her as to me."
"But I can't bear to be disappointed after going so far," said Miss Barbara. "She'll surely write in a few days. You'll just have to stay another week. I can arrange for that long. The landlady wants the room after the twenty-first for a permanent boarder, but you can't go until then."
In spite of all Judith's protestations, Miss Barbara kept her, and never did a week drag by so slowly. It snowed incessantly. Miss Barbara was unusually busy. Judith took a severe cold that confined her to the house. Her eyes ached when she attempted to read, and all she could do was to pace up and down the room and look out of the window, or watch the clock in feverish impatience for Miss Barbara to return with the mail.
But not until the sixteenth, the day of the musicale, did she lose hope. When the hour came in which she should have been listening to the famous violinist in Marguerite's elegant drawing-rooms, she threw herself on the bed and cried as if her heart would break. It had been years since she had given away to her emotions as she did then, but the disappointment was a bitter one. She must go back home without even a glimpse of the city of her dreams, and without meeting a single interesting person. True, she had had a pleasant visit with Cousin Barbara, but they both had thought of it as only the stepping-stone to what lay beyond. Then at the thought of Miss Barbara's disappointment, second only to her own, she cried again. And again for her mother's disappointment and the girls', and her mortification when it should be discussed in every house in Westbrooke. She sobbed so long that finally she fell into a deep sleep of exhaustion.
Miss Barbara, coming in later in the twilight, found her lying on the bed, with a feverish flush on her cheeks. The grieved, childlike droop of the sensitive little mouth told its own story, and Miss Barbara set her lips sternly together.
"I wish Daisy Avery could see her now," she muttered, savagely; "it's cruel to disappoint any one so. I don't care what the cause is, it's wickedly cruel to be so careless."
Four days later Judith went home. In the course of a week a letter was forwarded to her from Packertown. It was from Marguerite:
"How can you ever forgive my abominable carelessness? I intended to answer immediately after our guests left, but Mr. Avery and I were invited to a little house-party in the country, and I thought a few days wouldn't make any difference to you. Then, after our return, so many things interfered and the days slipped by so fast, that the month was nearly gone before I realized it. But then I always have been such a poor correspondent.
"I hope that it hasn't inconvenienced you any, and that you have been having a good visit with Miss Barbara. You know my unfortunate way of doing things, and I'm sure you'll forgive me, like the darling you always were.
"We shall look for you to-morrow on the six o'clock train. Don't disappoint us, for we both shall be at the station to meet you.
Judith read the letter aloud to the girls and then dropped it in the fire, watching it without a word, as it curled up in the flame. How long she had waited for that careless little letter! How anxiously she had hoped for it! A few days sooner it would have brought untold happiness. Now it was only a hollow mockery. Well, it was all over now. Her hopes were in ashes like the letter. How high they had burned! And the little evening gown she had taken such pleasure in making--there would never be any occasion fit for its wearing in Westbrooke. She might as well fold it away. The letter had come too late. And she was asked to forgive it--the disappointment that would sting all her life long--simply because it was Daisy's way.
The silence was growing uncomfortable. Amy kept casting frightened glances at her sister's white, tense face. "Oh, dear," she sighed, finally, "if this had only been in a story it wouldn't have ended so dreadfully. Something nice would have happened just at the last minute to make up for the disappointment."
"But it isn't in a story," said Judith, slowly, rising to leave the room. "And nothing can compensate for such a disappointment. It will hurt always."
As the door closed behind her the girls exchanged sympathizing glances. "If there had even been a good reason," sighed Lillian, "but it was only carelessness. And the trouble of it is, the world is full of Daisy Averys."