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An Exchange of Courtesies by Robert Grant

 

I

In the opinion of many persons competent to judge, “The Beaches” was suffering from an invasion of wealth. Unquestionably it had been fashionable for a generation; but the people who had established summer homes there were inhabitants of the large neighboring city which they forsook during five months in the year to enjoy the ocean breezes and sylvan scenery, for The Beaches afforded both. Well-to-do New England families of refinement and taste, they enjoyed in comfort, without ostentation, their picturesque surroundings. Their cottages were simple; but each had its charming outlook to sea and a sufficient number of more or less wooded acres to command privacy and breathing space. In the early days the land had sold for a song, but it had risen steadily with the times, as more and more people coveted a foothold. The last ten years had introduced many changes; the older houses had been pulled down and replaced by lordly structures with all the modern conveniences, including spacious stables and farm buildings. Two clubs had been organized along the six miles of coast to provide golf and tennis, afternoon teas and bridge whist for the entertainment of the colony. The scale of living had become more elaborate, and there had been many newcomers—people of large means who offered for the finest sites sums which the owners could not afford to refuse. The prices paid in several instances represented ten times the original outlay. All the desirable locations were held by proprietors fully aware of their value, and those bent on purchase must pay what was asked or go without.

Then had occurred the invasion referred to—the coming to The Beaches of the foreign contingent, so called: people of fabulous means, multi-millionaires who were captains in one or another form of industry and who sought this resort as a Mecca for the social uplifting of their families and protection against summer heat. At their advent prices made another jump—one which took the breath away. Several of the most conservative owners parted with their estates after naming a figure which they supposed beyond the danger point, and half a dozen second-rate situations, affording but a paltry glimpse of the ocean, were snapped up in eager competition by wealthy capitalists from Chicago, Pittsburg, and St. Louis who had set their hearts on securing the best there was remaining.

Among the late comers was Daniel Anderson, known as the furniture king in the jargon of trade, many times a millionaire, and comparatively a person of leisure through the sale of his large plants to a trust. He hired for the season, by long-distance telephone, at an amazing rental, one of the more desirable places which was to let on account of the purpose of its owners to spend the summer abroad. It was one of the newer houses, large and commodious; yet its facilities were severely taxed by the Anderson establishment, which fairly bristled with complexity. Horses by the score, vehicles manifold, a steam yacht, and three automobiles were the more striking symbols of a manifest design to curry favor by force of outdoing the neighborhood.

The family consisted of Mrs. Anderson, who was nominally an invalid, and a son and daughter of marriageable age. If it be stated that they were chips of the old block, meaning their father, it must not be understood that he had reached the moribund stage. On the contrary, he was still in the prime of his energy, and, with the exception of the housekeeping details, set in motion and directed the machinery of the establishment.

It had been his idea to come to The Beaches; and having found a foothold there he was determined to make the most of the opportunity not only for his children but himself. With his private secretary and typewriter at his elbow he matured his scheme of carrying everything before him socially as he had done in business. The passport to success in this new direction he assumed to be lavish expenditure. It was a favorite maxim of his—trite yet shrewdly entertained—that money will buy anything, and every man has his price. So he began by subscribing to everything, when asked, twice as much as any one else, and seeming to regard it as a privilege. Whoever along The Beaches was interested in charity had merely to present a subscription list to Mr. Anderson to obtain a liberal donation. The equivalent was acquaintance. The man or woman who asked him for money could not very well neglect to bow the next time they met, and so by the end of the first summer he was on speaking terms with most of the men and many of the women. Owing to his generosity, the fund for the building of a new Episcopal church was completed, although he belonged to a different denomination. He gave a drinking fountain for horses and dogs, and when the selectmen begrudged to the summer residents the cost of rebuilding two miles of road, Daniel Anderson defrayed the expense from his own pocket. An ardent devotee of golf, and daily on the links, he presented toward the end of the season superb trophies for the competition of both men and women, with the promise of others in succeeding years. In short, he gave the society whose favor he coveted to understand that it had merely “to press the button” and he would do the rest.

Mr. Andersen's nearest neighbors were the Misses Ripley—Miss Rebecca and Miss Caroline, or Carry, as she was invariably called. They were among the oldest summer residents, for their father had been among the first to recognize the attractions of The Beaches, and their childhood had been passed there. Now they were middle-aged women and their father was dead; but they continued to occupy season after season their cottage, the location of which was one of the most picturesque on the whole shore. The estate commanded a wide ocean view and included some charming woods on one side and a small, sandy, curving beach on the other. The only view of the water which the Andersons possessed was at an angle across this beach. The house they occupied, though twice the size of the Ripley cottage, was virtually in the rear of the Ripley domain, which lay tantalizingly between them and a free sweep of the landscape.

One morning, early in October of the year of Mr. Anderson's advent to The Beaches, the Ripley sisters, who were sitting on the piazza enjoying the mellow haze of the autumn sunshine, saw, with some surprise, Mr. David Walker, the real-estate broker, approaching across the lawn—surprise because it was late in the year for holidays, and Mr. Walker invariably went to town by the half-past eight train. Yet a visit from one of their neighbors was always agreeable to them, and the one in question lived not more than a quarter of a mile away and sometimes did drop in at afternoon tea-time. Certain women might have attempted an apology for their appearance, but Miss Rebecca seemed rather to glory in the shears which dangled down from her apron-strings as she rose to greet her visitor; they told so unmistakably that she had been enjoying herself trimming vines. Miss Carry—who was still kittenish in spite of her forty years—as she gave one of her hands to Mr. Walker held out with the other a basket of seckel pears she had been gathering, and said:

“Have one—do.”

Mr. Walker complied, and, having completed the preliminary commonplaces, said, as he hurled the core with an energetic sweep of his arm into the ocean at the base of the little bluff on which the cottage stood:

“There is no place on the shore which quite compares with this.”

“We agree with you,” said Miss Rebecca with dogged urbanity. “Is any one of a different opinion?”

“On the contrary, I have come to make you an offer for it. It isn't usual for real-estate men to crack up the properties they wish to purchase, but I am not afraid of doing so in this case.” He spoke buoyantly, as though he felt confident that he was in a position to carry his point.

“An offer?” said Miss Rebecca. “For our place? You know that we have no wish to sell. We have been invited several times to part with it, and declined. It was you yourself who brought the last invitation. We are still in the same frame of mind, aren't we, Carry?”

“Yes, indeed. Where should we get another which we like so well?”

“My principal invites you to name your own figure.”

“That is very good of him, I'm sure. Who is he, by the way?”

“I don't mind telling you; it's your neighbor, Daniel Anderson.” David Walker smiled significantly. “He is ready to pay whatever you choose to ask.”

“Our horses are afraid of his automobiles, and his liveried grooms have turned the head of one of our maids. Our little place is not in the market, thank you, Mr. Walker.”

The broker's beaming countenance showed no sign of discouragement. He rearranged the gay blue flower which had almost detached itself from the lapel of his coat, then said laconically:

“I am authorized by Mr. Anderson to offer you $500,000 for your property.”

“What?” exclaimed Miss Rebecca.

“Half a million dollars for six acres,” he added.

“The man must be crazy.” Miss Rebecca stepped to the honeysuckle vine with a detached air and snipped off a straggling tendril with her shears. “That is a large sum of money,” she added.

David Walker enjoyed the effect of his announcement; it was clear that he had produced an impression.

“Money is no object to him. I told him that you did not wish to sell, and he said that he would make it worth your while.”

“Half a million dollars! We should be nearly rich,” let fall Miss Carry, upon whom the full import of the offer was breaking.

“Yes; and think what good you two ladies could do with all that money—practical good,” continued the broker, pressing his opportunity and availing himself of his knowledge of their aspirations. “You could buy elsewhere and have enough left over to endow a professorship at Bryn Mawr, Miss Rebecca; and you, Miss Carry, would be able to revel in charitable donations.”

Those who knew the Ripley sisters well were aware that plain speaking never vexed them. Beating about the bush from artificiality or ignoring a plain issue was the sort of thing they resented. Consequently, the directness of David Walker's sally did not appear to them a liberty, but merely a legitimate summing up of the situation. Miss Rebecca was the spokesman as usual, though her choice was always governed by what she conceived to be the welfare of her sister, whom she still looked on as almost a very young person. Sitting upright and clasping her elbows, as she was apt to do in moments of stress, she replied:

“Money is money, Mr. Walker, and half a million dollars is not to be discarded lightly. We should be able, as you suggest, to do some good with so much wealth. But, on the other hand, we don't need it, and we have no one dependent on us for support. My brother is doing well and is likely to leave his only child all that is good for her. We love this place. Caroline may marry some day” (Miss Carry laughed protestingly at the suggestion and ejaculated, “Not very likely"), “but I never shall. I expect to come here as long as I live. We love every inch of the place—the woods, the beach, the sea. Our garden, which we made ourselves, is our delight. Why should we give up all this because some one offers us five times what we supposed it to be worth? My sister is here to speak for herself, but so far as I am concerned you may tell Mr. Anderson that if our place is worth so much as that we cannot afford to part with it.”

“Oh, no, it wouldn't do at all! Our heartstrings are round the roots of these trees, Mr. Walker,” added the younger sister in gentle echo of this determination.

“Don't be in a hurry to decide; think it over. It will bear reflection,” said the broker briskly.

“There's nothing to think over. It becomes clearer every minute,” said Miss Rebecca a little tartly. Then she added: “I dare say it will do him good to find that some one has something which he cannot buy.”

“He will be immensely disappointed, for his heart was set on it,” said David Walker gloomily. His emotions were not untinged by personal dismay, for his commission would have been a large one.

He returned forthwith to his client, who was expecting him, and who met him at the door.

“Well, Walker, what did the maiden ladies say? Have one of these,” he exclaimed, exhibiting some large cigars elaborately wrapped in gold foil. “They're something peculiarly choice which a friend of mine—a Cuban—obtained for me.”

“They won't sell, Mr. Anderson.”

The furniture king frowned. He was a heavily built but compact man who looked as though he were accustomed to butt his way through life and sweep away opposition, yet affable and easy-going withal.

“They won't sell? You offered them my price?”

“It struck them as prodigious, but they were not tempted.”

“I've got to have it somehow. With this land added to theirs I should have the finest place on the shore.”

The broker disregarded this flamboyant remark, which was merely a repetition of what he had heard several times already. “I warned you,” he said, “that they might possibly refuse even this munificent offer. They told me to tell you that if it was worth so much they could not afford to sell.”

“Is it not enough? They're poor, you told me—poor as church mice.”

“Compared with you. But they have enough to live on simply, and—and to be able to maintain such an establishment as yours, for instance, would not add in the least degree to their happiness. On the contrary, it is because they delight in the view and the woods and their little garden just as they see them that they can't afford to let you have the place.” Now that the chances of a commission were slipping away David Walker was not averse to convey in delicate language the truth which Miss Rebecca had set forth.

Mr. Anderson felt his chin meditatively. “I seem to be up against it,” he murmured. “You think they are not holding out for a higher figure?” he asked shrewdly.

David shook his head. Yet he added, with the instinct of a business man ready to nurse a forlorn hope, “There would be no harm in trying. I don't believe, though, that you have the ghost of a chance.”

The furniture king reflected a moment. “I'll walk down there this afternoon and make their acquaintance.”

“A good idea,” said Walker, contented to shift the responsibility of a second offer. “You'll find them charming—real thoroughbreds,” he saw fit to add.

“A bit top-lofty?” queried the millionaire.

“Not in the least. But they have their own standards, Mr. Anderson.”

The furniture king's progress at The Beaches had been so uninterrupted on the surface and so apparently satisfactory to himself that no one would have guessed that he was not altogether content with it. With all his easy-going optimism, it had not escaped his shrewd intelligence that his family still lacked the social recognition he desired. People were civil enough, but there were houses into which they were never asked in spite of all his spending; and he was conscious that they were kept at arm's length by polite processes too subtle to be openly resented. Yet he did resent in his heart the check to his ambitions, and at the same time he sought eagerly the cause with an open mind. It had already dawned on him that when he was interested in a topic his voice was louder than the voices of his new acquaintances. He had already given orders to his chauffeur that the automobiles should be driven with some regard for the public safety. Lately the idea had come to him, and he had imparted it to his son, that the habit of ignoring impediments did not justify them in driving golf balls on the links when, the players in front of them were slower than they liked.

On the way to visit the Misses Ripley later in the day the broker's remark that they had standards of their own still lingered in his mind. He preferred to think of them and others along the shore as stiff and what he called top lofty; yet he intended to observe what he saw. He had been given to understand that these ladies were almost paupers from his point of view; and, though when he had asked who they were, David Walker had described them as representatives of one of the oldest and most respected families, he knew that they took no active part in the social life of the colony as he beheld it; they played neither golf, tennis, nor bridge at the club; they owned no automobile, and their stable was limited to two horses; they certainly cut no such figure as seemed to him to become people in their position, who could afford to refuse $500,000 for six acres.

He was informed by the middle-aged, respectable-looking maid that the ladies were in the garden behind the house. A narrow gravelled path bordered with fragrant box led him to this. Its expanse was not large, but the luxuriance and variety of the old-fashioned summer flowers attested the devotion bestowed upon them. At the farther end was a trellised summer-house in which he perceived that the maiden ladies were taking afternoon tea. There was no sign of hothouse roses or rare exotic plants, but he noticed a beehive, a quaint sundial with an inscription, and along the middle path down which he walked were at intervals little dilapidated busts or figures of stone on pedestals—some of them lacking tips of noses or ears. It did not occur to Mr. Anderson that antiquity rather than poverty was responsible for these ravages. Their existence gave him fresh hope.

“Who can this be?” said Miss Carry with a gentle flutter. An unknown, middle-aged man was still an object of curiosity to her.

Miss Rebecca raised her eyeglass. “I do believe, my dear, that it's—yes, it is.”

“But who?” queried Miss Carry.

Miss Rebecca rose instead of answering. The stranger was upon them, walking briskly and hat in hand. His manner was distinctly breezy—more so than a first meeting would ordinarily seem to her to justify.

“Good afternoon, ladies. Daniel Anderson is my name. My wife wasn't lucky enough to find you at home when she returned your call, so I thought I'd be neighborly.”

“It's very good of you to come to see us,” said Miss Rebecca, relenting at once. She liked characters—being something of one herself—and her neighbor's heartiness was taking. “This is my sister, Miss Caroline Ripley,” she added to cement the introduction, “and I am Rebecca. Sit down, Mr. Anderson; and may I give you a cup of tea?”

Four people were apt to be cosily crowded in the summer-house. Being only a third person, the furniture king was able to settle himself in his seat and look around him without fear that his legs would molest any one. He gripped the arms of his chair and inhaled the fragrance of the garden.

“This is a lovely place, ladies,” he asserted.

“Those hollyhocks and morning-glories and mignonettes take me back to old times. Up to my place it's all roses and orchids. But my wife told me last week that she heard old-fashioned flowers are coming in again. Seems she was right.”

“Oh, but we've had old-fashioned flowers for years! Our garden has been always just like this—only becoming a little prettier all the time, we venture to hope,” said Miss Carry.

“I want to know!” said Mr. Anderson; and almost immediately he remembered that both his son and daughter had cautioned him against the use of this phrase at The Beaches. He received the dainty but evidently ancient cup from Miss Rebecca, and seeing that the subject was, so to speak, before the house, he tasted his tea and said:

“It's all pretty here—garden, view, and beach. And I hear you decline to sell, ladies.”

Miss Rebecca had been musing on the subject all day, and a heartfelt response rose promptly to her lips—spoken with the simple grace of a self-respecting gentlewoman:

“Why should we sell, Mr. Anderson?”

The question was rather a poser to answer categorically; yet the would-be purchaser felt that he sufficiently conveyed his meaning when he said:

“I thought I might have made it worth your while.”

“We are people of small means in the modern sense of the word,” Miss Rebecca continued, thereby expressing more concretely his idea; “yet we have sufficient for our needs. Our tastes are very simple. The sum which you offered us is a fortune in itself—but we have no ambition for great wealth or to change our mode of life. Our associations with this place are so intimate and tender that money could not induce us to desecrate them by a sale.”

“I see,” said Mr. Anderson. Light was indeed breaking on him. At the same time his appreciation of the merits of the property had been growing every minute. It was an exquisite autumn afternoon. From where they sat he could behold the line of shore on either side with its background of dark green woods. Below the wavelets lapped the shingle with melodious rhythm. As far as the eye could see lay the bosom of the ocean unruffled, and lustrous with the sheen of the dying day. Accustomed to prevail in buying his way, he could not resist saying, after a moment of silence:

“If I were to increase my offer to a million would it make any difference in your attitude?”

A suppressed gurgle of mingled surprise and amusement escaped Miss Carry.

Miss Rebecca paused a moment by way of politeness to one so generous. But her tone when she spoke was unequivocal, and a shade sardonic.

“Not the least, Mr. Anderson. To tell the truth, we should scarcely understand the difference.”

II

One summer afternoon two years later the Ripley sisters were again drinking tea in their attractive summer-house. In the interval the peaceful current of their lives had been stirred to its depths by unlooked-for happenings. Very shortly after their refusal of Mr. Anderson's offer, their only brother, whose home was on the Hudson within easy distance of New York, had died suddenly. He was a widower; and consequently the protection of his only daughter straightway devolved on them. She was eighteen and good-looking. This they knew from personal observation at Thanksgiving Day and other family reunions; but owing to the fact that Mabel Ripley had been quarantined by scarlet fever during the summer of her sixteenth year, and in Europe the following summer, they were conscious, prior to her arrival at The Beaches, that they were very much in the dark as to her characteristics.

She proved to be the antipodes of what they had hoped for. Their traditions had depicted a delicate-appearing girl with reserved manners and a studious or artistic temperament, who would take an interest in the garden and like nothing better than to read aloud to them the new books while they did fancy-work. A certain amount of coy coquetry was to be expected—would be welcomed, in fact, for there were too many Miss Ripleys already. Proper facilities would be offered to her admirers, but they took for granted that she would keep them at a respectful distance as became a gentlewoman. She would be urged to take suitable exercise; they would provide a horse, if necessary; and doubtless some of the young people in the neighborhood would invite her occasionally to play tennis.

Mabel's enthusiasm at the nearness of the sea took precedence over every other emotion as she stood on the piazza after the embraces were over.

“How adorably stunning! I must go out sailing the first thing,” were her words.

Meanwhile the aunts were observing that she appeared the picture of health and was tall and athletic-looking. In one hand she had carried a tennis-racket in its case, in the other, a bag of golf clubs, as she alighted from the vehicle. These evidently were her household gods. The domestic vision which they had entertained might need rectification.

“You sail, of course?” Mabel asked, noticing, doubtless, that her exclamation was received in silence.

Aunt Rebecca shook her head. “I haven't been in a sail-boat for twenty years.”

“But whose steam yacht is that?”

“It belongs to Mr. Anderson, a wealthy neighbor.”

“Anyhow, a knockabout is more fun—a twenty-footer,” the girl continued, her gaze still fixed on the haven which the indentations of the coast afforded, along which at intervals groups of yachts, large and small, floated at their moorings picturesque as sea-gulls on a feeding-ground.

“There is an old rowboat in the barn. I daresay that Thomas, the coachman, will take you out rowing sometimes after he has finished his work,” said Aunt Carry kindly.

“Do you swim?” inquired Aunt Rebecca, failing to note her niece's bewildered expression.

“Like a duck. I'm quite as much at home on the water as on land. I've had a sailboat since I was thirteen, and most of our summers have been spent at Buzzard's Bay.”

“But you're a young lady now,” said Aunt Rebecca.

Mabel looked from one to the other as though she were speculating as to what these new protectors were like. “Am I?” she asked with a smile. “I must remember that, I suppose; but it will be hard to change all at once.” Thereupon she stepped lightly to the edge of the cliff that she might enjoy more completely the view while she left them to digest this qualified surrender.

“'No pent-up Utica contracts her powers,'“ murmured Miss Rebecca, who was fond of classic verse.

“It is evident that we shall have our hands full,” answered Miss Carry. “But she's fresh as a rose, and wide-awake. I'm sure the dear girl will try to please us.”

Mabel did try, and succeeded; but it was a success obtained at the cost of setting at naught all her aunts' preconceived ideas regarding the correct deportment of marriageable girls. The knockabout was forthcoming shortly after she had demonstrated her amphibious qualities by diving from the rocks and performing water feats which dazed her anxious guardians. Indeed, she fairly lived in her bathing-dress until the novelty wore off. Thomas, the coachman, who had been a fisherman in his day, announced with a grin, after accompanying her on the trial trip of the hired cat-boat, that he could teach her nothing about sailing. Henceforth her small craft was almost daily a distant speck on the horizon, and braved the seas so successfully under her guidance that presently the aunts forbore to watch for disaster through a spyglass.

She could play tennis, too, with the best, as she demonstrated on the courts of The Beaches Club. Her proficiency and spirit speedily made friends for her among the young people of the colony, who visited her and invited her to take part in their amusements. She was prepared to ride on her bicycle wherever the interest of the moment called her, and deplored the solemnity of the family carryall. When her aunts declared that a wheel was too undignified a vehicle on which to go out to luncheon, she compromised on a pony cart as a substitute, for she could drive almost as well as she could sail. She took comparatively little interest in the garden, and was not always at home at five-o'clock tea to read aloud the latest books; but her amiability and natural gayety were like sunshine in the house. She talked freely of what she did, and she had an excellent appetite.

“She's as unlike the girls of my day as one could imagine, and I do wish she wouldn't drive about the country bareheaded, looking like a colt or a young Indian,” said Miss Rebecca pensively one morning, just after Mabel's departure for the tennis-court. “But I must confess that she's the life of the place, and we couldn't get on without her now. I don't think, though, that she has done three hours of solid reading since she entered the house. I call that deplorable.”

“She's a dear,” said Aunt Carry. “We haven't been much in the way of seeing young girls of late, and Mabel doesn't seem to me different from most of those who visit her. Twenty years ago, you remember, girls pecked at their food and had to lie down most of the time. Now they eat it. What I can't get quite used to is the habit of letting young men call them by their first names on short acquaintance. In my time,” she added with a little sigh, “it would have been regarded as inconsistent with maidenly reserve. I'm sure I heard the young man who was here last night say, 'I've known you a week now; may I call you Mabel?'“

As to young men, be it stated, the subject of this conversation showed herself impartially indifferent. Her attitude seemed to be that boys were good fellows as well as girls, and should be encouraged accordingly. If they chose to make embarrassing speeches regarding one's personal appearance and to try to be alone with one as much as possible, while such favoritism was rather a fillip to existence, it was to be considered at bottom as an excellent joke. Young men came and young men went. Mabel attracted her due share. Yet evidently she seemed to be as glad to see the last comer as any of his predecessors.

Then occurred the second happening in the tranquil existence of the maiden ladies. One day at the end of the first summer, an easterly day, when the sky was beginning to be obscured by scud and the sea was swelling with the approach of a storm, Dan Anderson, the only son of his father, was knocked overboard by the boom while showing the heels of his thirty-foot knockabout to the hired boat of his neighbor, Miss Mabel Ripley. They were not racing, for his craft was unusually fast, as became a multi-millionaire's plaything. Besides, he and the girl had merely a bowing acquaintance. The Firefly was simply bobbing along on the same tack as the Enchantress, while the fair skipper, who had another girl as a companion, tried vainly, at a respectful distance, to hold her own by skill.

The headway on Dan's yacht was so great that before the two dazed salts on board realized what had happened their master was far astern. They bustled to bring the Enchantress about and to come to his rescue in the dingy. Stunned by the blow of the—spar, he had gone down like a stone; so, in all probability, they would have been too late. When he came up the second time it was on the port bow of the Firefly, but completely out of reach. Giving the tiller to her friend, and stripping off superfluous apparel, Mabel jumped overboard in time to grasp and hold the drowning youth. There she kept him until aid reached them. But the unconscious victim did not open his eyes until after he had been laid on the Misses Ripley's lawn, where, by virtue of brandy from the medicine-closet and hot-water bottles, the flickering spark of life was coaxed into a flame.

It was an agitating experience for the aunts. But Mabel was none the worse for the wetting; and though she naturally made light of her performance, congratulations on her pluck and presence of mind came pouring in. David Walker suggested that the Humane Society would be sure to take the matter up and confer a medal upon the heroine. The members of the Anderson family came severally to express with emotion their gratitude and admiration. The father had not been there since his previous eventful visit, though once or twice he had met his neighbors on the road and stopped to speak to them, as if to show he harbored no malice in spite of his disappointment.

Now with a tremulous voice he bore testimony to the greatness of the mercy which had been vouchsafed him.

The third and last happening might be regarded as a logical sequel to the second by those who believe that marriages are made in heaven. It was to ponder it again after having pondered it for twenty-four hours that the Ripley sisters found themselves in their pleached garden at the close of the day. That the event was not unforeseen by one of them was borne out by the words of Miss Carry:

“I remember saying to myself that day on the lawn, Rebecca, that it would be just like the modern girl if she were to marry him; because she saved his life, I mean. If he had saved hers, as used to happen, she would never have looked at him twice. I didn't mention it because it was only an idea, which might have worried you.”

“We have seen it coming, of course,” answered Miss Rebecca, who was clasping the points of her elbows. “And there was nothing to do about it—even if we desired to. I can't help, though, feeling sorry that she isn't going to marry some one we know all about—the family, I mean.

“Well,” she added with a sigh, “the Andersons will get our place in the end, after all, and we shall be obliged to associate more or less with multi-millionaires for the rest of our days. It's depressing ethically; but there's no use in quarrelling with one's own flesh and blood, if it is a modern girl, for one would be quarrelling most of the time. We must make the best of it, Carry, and—and try to like it.”

“He really seems very nice,” murmured Miss Carry. “He gives her some new jewel almost every day.”

Miss Rebecca sniffed disdainfully, as though to inquire if love was to be attested by eighteen-carat gold rather than by summer blooms.

The sound of steps on the gravel path interrupted their confabulation.

“It is Mr. Anderson, père” said Miss Carry laconically.

“He is coming to take possession,” responded her sister.

The crunch of the gravel under his solid, firm tread jarred on their already wearied sensibilities. Nevertheless they knew that it behooved them to be cordial and to accept the situation with good grace. Their niece was over head and ears in love with a young man whose personal character, so far as they knew, was not open to reproach, and who would be heir to millions. What more was to be said? Indeed, Miss Rebecca was the first to broach the subject after the greetings were over.

“Our young people seem to have made up their minds that they cannot live apart,” she said.

“So my son has informed me.”

Mr. Anderson spoke gravely and then paused. His habitually confident manner betrayed signs of nervousness.

“I told him this morning that there could be no engagement until after I had talked with you,” he added.

One could have heard a pin drop. Each of the sisters was tremulous to know what was coming next. Could he possibly be meditating purse-proud opposition? The Ripley blue blood simmered at the thought, and Miss Rebecca, nervous in her turn, tapped the ground lightly with her foot.

“The day I was first here,” he resumed, “you ladies taught me a lesson. I believed then that money could command anything. I discovered that I was mistaken. It provoked me, but it set me thinking. I've learned since that the almighty dollar cannot buy gentle birth and—and the standards which go with it.”

Unexpectedly edifying as this admission was, his listeners sought in vain to connect it with the immediate issue, and consequently forebore to speak.

“The only return I can make for opening my eyes to the real truth is by doing what I guess you would do if you or one of your folk were in my shoes. I'm a very rich man, as you know. If your niece marries my son her children will never come to want in their time. He's a good boy, if I do say it; and I should be mighty proud of her.”

Miss Carry breathed a gentle sigh of relief at this last avowal.

“I don't want her to marry him, though, without knowing the truth, and perhaps when you hear it you'll decide that she must give him up.”

Thereupon Mr. Anderson blew his nose by way of gathering his faculties for the crucial words as a carter rests his horse before mounting the final hill when the sledding is hard.

“I'm going to tell you how I made my first start. I was a clerk in a bank and sharp as a needle in forecasting what was going to happen downtown. I used to say to myself that if I had capital it would be easy to make money breed money. Well, one day I borrowed from the bank, without the bank's leave, $3,000 in order to speculate. I won on that deal and the next and the next. Then I was able to return what I'd borrowed and to set up in a small way for myself in the furniture business. That was my start, ladies—the nest-egg of all I've got.”

He sat back in his chair and passed his handkerchief across his forehead like one who has performed with credit an agonizing duty.

There was silence for a moment. Unequivocal as the confession was, Miss Rebecca, reluctant to believe her ears, asked with characteristic bluntness:

“You mean that you—er—misappropriated the money?”

“I was an embezzler, strictly speaking.”

“I see.”

“Perhaps you wonder why I told you this,” he said, bending forward.

“No, we understand,” said Miss Rebecca.

“We understand perfectly,” exclaimed Miss Carry with gentle warmth.

“It's very honest of you, Mr. Anderson,” said Miss Rebecca after a musing pause.

“I've never been dishonest since then,” he remarked naïvely. “But a year ago I wouldn't have told you this, though it's been in the back of my mind as a rankling sore, growing as I grew in wealth and respectability. I made a bluff at believing that it didn't matter, and that a thing done has an end. Well, now I've made a clean breast of it to the ones who have a right to know. I should like you to tell Mabel.”

As he spoke the lovers appeared in the near distance at the edge of the lawn, coming up from the beach. “But I don't think it will be necessary to tell my son,” he added yearningly.

“Certainly not” said Miss Rebecca with emphasis.

The sisters exchanged glances, trying to read each other's thoughts.

“It's a blot in the 'scutcheon, of course,” said Miss Rebecca. “It's for our niece to say.” But there was no sternness in her tone.

This gave Miss Carry courage. Her hand shook a little as she put down her teacup, for she was shy of taking the initiative. “I think I know what she would say. In our time it would probably have been different, on account of the family—and heredity; but Mabel is a modern girl. And a modern girl would say that she isn't to marry the father but the son. She loves him, so I'm certain she would never give him up. Therefore is it best to tell her?”

Daniel Anderson's face was illumined with the light of hope, and he turned to the elder sister, whom he recognized as the final judge.

Miss Rebecca sniffed. Her ideas of everlasting justice were a little disconcerted. Nevertheless she said firmly after brief hesitation:

“I was taught to believe that the sins of the fathers should be visited on the children; but I believe, Carry, you're right.”

“Bless you for that,” exclaimed the furniture king. Then, groping in the excess of his emotion for some fit expression of gratitude, he bent forward and, taking Miss Rebecca's hand, pressed his lips upon her fingers as an act of homage.

Miss Carry would have been justified in reflecting that it would have been more fitting had he kissed her fingers instead. But she was used to taking the second place in the household, and the happy expression of her countenance suggested that her thoughts were otherwise engaged.

 
 
 

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