Back to the Index Page


A Matter of Rivalry by Octave Thanet


It was the fifth afternoon of St. Kunagunda's fair. An interlude of semi-rest had come between the clearing up last night's debris of crowd and traffic, which had filled the morning, and the renewed crowd and traffic that would come with the lamps. The tired elderly women in charge of the supper had sunk into chairs before their clean linen and dazzling white stone-china dishes and fresh bunches of lilacs. The pretty young girls at the “fancy table” were laughing and prattling rather loudly with two amiable young men who had been tacking home-made lace handkerchiefs and embroidered “art centres” in the vacant spaces left on the pink cambric wall by the departure of last night's purchases. A comely matron kept guard simultaneously over the useful but not perilously alluring wares of the “household table” and the adjacent temptations of the flower-stand and the candy-booth. The last was indeed fair to see, having a magnificent pyramid of pop-corn balls and entrancing heaps of bright-colored home-made French candy; and round and round its delights prowled a chubby and wistful boy, with hands in his penniless pockets, waiting for the chancellor of the exchequer.

Across the hall, the walls whereof were lavishly decked with red, white, and blue festoons of cambric, and had the green and gold of Erin's flag intertwined with the yellow and black of Germany, stood a table which had been the centre of interest for four nights, but which now was entirely deserted. There was no glory of color or pomp of bedizenment about it; nothing more taking to the eye than a ballot-box and a small show-case (the contents of the latter draped in newspapers at the present) and a neatly lettered sign above a blackboard, to one side. The sign simply demanded, “Vote Here!” The blackboard in less trim script announced that “For most popular business man” Mr. Timothy G. Finnerty had 305 votes, and three or four other candidates so few that there was no interest in deciphering the chalk figures; and that “For most popular young lady” Miss Norah Murray had 842 votes, and Miss Freda Berglund had 603. At intervals some one of the score of people in the hall would saunter up to the show-case or to the blackboard, to peer into the one or to study the figures on the other—although, really, there was no one in the hall who did not know every line on the board, and who had not seen both the gold watch and the gold-headed cane of the show-case. Two women came from different quarters of the room at the same instant to look at the blackboard. One was a comely dame in a silken gown that rustled and glittered with jet. She had just entered the hall, and was a little flushed with the climb up the stairs. The other was a stunted, wiry little Irish woman in black weeds of ancient make. She caught sight of the one in silk attire and paused. The first-comer also paused. Her color deepened; her head erected itself more proudly on her shoulders. Then she continued her progress, halting, with a dignified and elegant air, before the blackboard. The little Irish woman tossed her own head and appeared about to follow; however, her intention changed at a few words from the guardian of the apron table. She inclined her head, and with a glance of scorn at the silken back passed on over to the aprons and quilts.

The matrons at the supper-table had viewed the incident with interest. A little sigh of relief or regret rippled about the board.

“'Tis a great pity, that's sure,” said one.

“I was there when they had the words,” said another. “Mrs. Conner was saying this voting business was all wrong—”

“Well, sure she ain't far out of the way, with this time,” interjected a voice; “bad blood more'n in this instance it's raised; the whole town's taking sides on it, and there was two fights yesterday. Why didn't they jest raffle the watch off decent and peaceable?”

“There's some objects to raffling.”

“There's some objects to drinking tea an' coffee, they're so bigoted! In a raffle there's nobody pays more'n their quarter, or maybe a dollar or two—”

“And that's it. Look at the power o' money we're gettin', Mrs. O'Brien dear! We'd niver 'a' got nigh on to four hundred dollars for a gold watch rafflin'; and well you know it!”

“Maybe,” agreed Mrs. O'Brien, grimly, “but neither would we have got fightin' out of the church and fightin' in it; nor Pat Barnes be having his head broke. 'Twas hurted awful bad he was. His own mother told me; and she said Fritz Miller was sick in bed from it; Pat paid him well for talkin' down ould Ireland; and poor Terry Flanagin, he lost his job at the saw-mill for maddin' the boss that's Dutch, and infidel Dutch at that; and there's quarrels on ivery side, God forgive 'em! They talk of it at the stores, and they talk of it at the saloon, where they do be going too often to talk it; and 'tis a shame an' a disgrace, down to that saloon the dirty Dutchman—”

Whisht!” three or four mouths puckered in warning, and Mrs. O'Brien caught the smouldering gaze of a flaxen-haired woman in very full black skirts and black basque of an antique cut, who had but now approached the group; with her race's nimbleness of wit she added, “Sure there's dirty Germans and there's dirty Irish.”

“Dere is,” agreed the new-comer, with displeasing alacrity, “und some is in dis parish und dis sodality. I vas seen dem viping dishes mit a newsbaber. Dot's so. Yesterday night.”

An electric thrill ran through the circle, and two matrons, suddenly very red, answered at once:

“Would you have us wipe them on our handkerchiefs? The towels were all gone!”

“'Twas the awful crowd did it; an' 'twas only some saucers for the ice-cream.”

Mrs. O'Brien waved her hands, very clean, not very shapely, and worn by many an honest day's toil, persuading and pleading for peace at once. “Sure,” says she, “if you'd wurrk at fairs you'd know that you can't be doing things like you'd do them at home; and 'twas only for a minit they wiped the saucers with the paper napkins, clean tishy-paper napkins, Mrs. Orendorf; 'twas only two or three saucers got wiped with the newspaper, because the napkins was give out and they was shrieking and clamoring for saucers; and they're terrible, them young girls! waving their hands and jumpin' an' squealin'. 'Me first, Mrs. O'Brien!' 'It's my turn, Mrs. O'Brien!' 'Oh, Mrs. O'Brien, wait on me. I've got six people haven't had a bite in half an hour; and they're so cross!' Till your mind's goin'! No doubt we're makin' money, but I'm for a smaller crowd an' more good falein'.”

“It's for der voting dey kooms,” grumbled the German woman, only half pacified. “Dot vas bad mistake haf dot votin'. Vot vas dot dirty Deutchman you call him do dot make you so mad?”

“Oh, it wasn't so much”—Mrs. O'Brien was still bent on peace—“he jist telephoned to the next door an' got the returns, as he called them, and had 'em posted up in his saloon. An' if they was daughters of mine—I 'ain't got anny daughters, praise God! for since I seen the way these waiters go on, I'm misdoubtin' I niver could manage thim—but if they was daughters of mine, 'twould be the sorry day for me whin they'd their names posted up in a saloon!”

“Meine fader in der old country kept a saloon,” said the German woman, with extreme dryness of accent, “und does you mean to say vun vurd against Freda Berglund?”

“No, indade,” cried Mrs. O'Brien.

“And do you mean to say one word against Norah Murray?” a bolder partisan on the Celtic side struck in, with a determined air. Three or four voices murmured assent.

The German stood her ground. “I nefer seen her till yesterday”—thus without committing direct assault on the Murray supporters she avoided concession; “all I know of her is dot she nefer haf dot gold vatch!”

“Then you know more than we do. Norah's ahead, and she'll be more ahead this evening,” retorted a Murray voter; “there's plenty more money to spend for old Ireland—ain't there, ladies?”

“Whisht!” called the peace-maker, in her turn. “Ain't it easy to see how Mrs. Conner and Mrs. Finn come to words and hard falein' when we're nigh that same ourselves, we that determined to kape out of the worry? They are both awful nice, pretty young ladies, and I'm sorry such a question come up between them; and 'tis dreadful, O'Brien says, the way the young men was spinding their money for Norah last night. Sure, an' it is that. 'Tis all a bad thing; I think that like Mrs. Conner.”

Mrs. Orendorf was unable to adjust her mental view to the varying argument; she cast a sullen and puzzled eye on the amiable Irish woman, and said, grimly:

“It isn't joost yoong mans vot kan spend money. Freda don't have got no yoong mans, 'cause her Schatz vent to der var und die py der fever in Florida—”

“Sure he did that!” cried Mrs. O'Brien, “an' 'twas a fine man an' a fine carpenter he was. Aw, the poor girl! I mind how she looked the day Company E marched out of town, him turnin' his eyes up sidewises, an' her white as paper but a-smilin'!”

“God pity her!” chimed in another matron, with the ready response to sympathy of the Celt. There was a little murmur of assent. Mrs. Orendorf's swelling crest fell a little; her tone was softer.

“But Freda got a fader, a goot man, too goot and kind; he say he vunt haf his dochter look down on like she don't got no friends. He go and mortgage his farm, und he got drie—tree hunterd dollar”—she tapped the sum off her palm with solemn deliberation—“und he svear he vill in der votin' all, all spend, an' sie git dot vatch. Ach Himmel! er ist verruckt! He say he got his pension and he got der insure on his life, und he 'ain't got nobody 'cept Freda, und he vunt haf Freda look down on. Und sie don't know. Mans don't can talk mit him; he git mad. He git mad at me 'cause I talk. Dot's vat der fine votin' do!”

A little gasp from the audience meant more than agreement; their eyes ran to Mrs. O'Brien, who faced the German and could see what they saw; then back of Mrs. Orendorf to the crimson face of a young girl. Mutely they signalled consternation.

But the young girl did not speak; she walked away quickly, not turning her head as she passed the voting-booth. She was a pretty girl, with fresh skin, the whiter and fresher against her abundant silky black hair and black-lashed violet eyes. She carried her dainty head a little haughtily, but her soft eyes had a wistful sweetness. Her big flowered hat and her white gown, brightened by blue ribbons, were as fresh as her skin and became her rich beauty. She walked with the natural light grace often seen in girls of her race, whatever their class. No one could watch the winsome little figure pass and not feel the charm of youth and frank innocence and immeasurable hopes. More than one pair of elderly eyes that had seen the glory and freshness of the dream fade followed it kindly and with a pensive pride.

“Ain't she pretty and slim!” sighed a stout lady in silk (Mrs. Conner, the most important supporter of the parish, no less), “and think of me having a waist as little as hers when I was married! But I wish she hadn't let them drag her into this voting business, for it has caused trouble.”

“Norah's as good and sweet's she's pretty,” another elderly woman replied. “Just to think of that young thing supporting her mother and educating her brother for a priest with only those pretty little hands! But she won't be doing it long if the boys can one of them get their way. And what will we do for a dress-maker then? We never did have such a stylish one!”

“That's so,” Mrs. Conner agreed, cordially; “she's the only one I ever went to didn't make me look fleshier than I am. But I say it is all the more shame to make that innocent young creature talked about and fought over, and have jokes made in the saloon and at the stores, and quarrels outside the parish and in it, too.”

“I guess it has gone farther than we thought,” said the other. “Look! there's Father Kelly and the Vicar-General; they're looking at the blackboard. I wish I could hear what they are saying.”

Norah, indeed, was the only person who did not look at the two quiet gentlemen before the blackboard, curiously, and wonder the same, since the voting-booth had become a firebrand menacing the peace of the parish. Norah was too busy with her own thoughts even to see them; she only wanted to get past her wellwishers and be alone with her perplexities. If she did not see her spiritual guides, they saw her, and Father Kelly's tired face brightened. “You really can't blame the boys,” he said, smiling; “and she's as good a daughter and sister, and as good a girl, too, as ever stepped.”

The Vicar-General smiled faintly, but his eyes were absent. The parish at Clover Hill was the newest in the diocese—a feeble folk struggling to build a church, or rather help build it, and holding its first bazar. There were no rich people of their faith—unless one except the Conners, who owned the saw-mill and were well-to-do—not even many poor to club their mites; more disheartening yet, the parish roll held about an equal proportion of Irish and German names. The Vicar-General and the Bishop shook their heads at the yoking of the two races; but there was no church nearer than Father Kelly's, five miles away, and Father Kelly was not young, and his own great parish growing all the time; so the parish was made, and a young American priest, who had more sense than always goes with burning enthusiasm, was sent to guide the souls at Clover Hill and keep the peace. He kept it until the fair, when in an evil hour he consented to the voting-booth. He expected—they all expected—that the excitement would focus on the gold-headed cane, and that Mr. Michael Conner would lead the poll, although the popular Finnerty might give him a pretty race for his honors; the gold watch was but an incidental attraction to please the young people and attract outsiders; nor was there any suggestion of names. Alas! Michael Conner, a blunt man, dubbed the voting scheme a “d—-weather-breeder,” and would not give the use of his name; hence there was a walkaway for Finnerty; and somehow, before any of the elders quite realized how it began, the Irish girl and the German girl were unconsciously setting the whole town by the ears, and imported voters from Father Kelly's were joyously mixing in the fight.

“There's no question about the need of stopping it,” said the Vicar-General, continuing his own train of thought aloud, “but how are we to do it? The feeling is a perfect dynamite factory now, and the least stumble on our part will bring an explosion. If we tried to give them the money back—and you know women have a tight grip on money —we shouldn't know where to give it. Positively we're like the family of the poor fellow who had the fit—one doctor said it would kill him to bring him to his senses, and the other said he would die if they didn't!”

“And Father Martin safe in his bed with pneumonia!” groaned Father Kelly.

Norah had found her progress barred by new-comers, and she had fled back to avoid them. Her cheeks reddened again, and the tears burned her eyelids; she went past too fast for more than a hurried salutation, at which Father Kelly shook his head. “That's the girl, isn't it?” said the Vicar-General. “I'm afraid the situation is a little too much for her, too; she looks excited.”

“Not a bit, not a bit,” cried Father Kelly, undaunted; “she's a bit impulsive, but she's got good sense.”

“She wears too much jewelry.”

Norah did not hear this; she was out of the hall, speeding back to Mrs. Conner's gown that awaited her finishing touches. Her mother, a little creature with sweet temper that made amends for an entire lack of energy, was rocking over some bastings, sawing the air with her forefinger as she discoursed on the weighty splendor of the gold watch and chain, ending in gush of parental complacency, “And Norah says it'll be as much mine 's hers!”

Norah could hear her chirping on, happily, while she laid away her hat in the bandbox and girt herself with a protecting apron.

The talk turned her cold. “It ain't only for myself I want it,” she declared to an invisible suggester, “though I do want something real. I never had a real gold chain, or even a real gold breastpin, in my life—or a ring. Oh, I did want one!” She looked scornfully at the gay prism gleaming from her pretty fingers (fingers as daintily kept as any lady's); they had flashed like rubies and sapphires and diamonds from the white velvet drifts of the show-case in the great department store where she bought them when she went to the city; but now they were cheapened and dimmed by her memories of the “real” watch. She peeled them roughly from her hands.

She had no morsel of news ready for the hungry ears awaiting her. To her mother's questions she answered briefly that the only thing she heard was that Freda Berglund would have a great number of new votes in the evening.

Mrs. Murray tossed back a confident: “Let her! I know some boys that's going to go this night, with a hundred dollars in their pockets each of 'em. Let her bring on her votes, I say. It's a good cause gits the money. But it's you'll be wearin' the watch next Sunday, and not Freda Berglund!”

Norah bit her lip. She was not used to silence, but she sewed silently (Norah, who was so sweet-tempered that she had been known to work a whole day with a machine that skipped stitches, never getting cross, and stopping four times to wrestle with the bobbin before she subdued it). Her mother did not know what to make of her. Her own nickering complaints of Norah's “glumness” sank into dumb anxiety. She stole timid glances at the bowed black head and the frowning black brows; after a glance she would sigh, a prolonged, patient sigh. There are times when a sigh is to strained nerves like a blast of hot air on a burn. Norah jumped up and ran away from her own irritation before it exploded. She made a pretext of looking at her skirt (which was new) in the parlor cheval-glass; but in the parlor, behind the door, she did not give a glance to the picture in the mirror. The “pire glass,” as Mrs. Murray called it, was a relic of the family's better days when Norah's father was alive and kept a grocery-store and owned a horse and wagon; its florid frame of black-walnut etched with gilt, its tall mirror, very little marred by water-spots on the back, long had been reverently admired by Norah; it showed that the family had “had things”; but she passed it without a glance, just as she passed the cabinet organ decked in flowered plush which she had bought with her own savings. Never until that day had she stood in the parlor without a sensation of pleasure over its fresh paint and paper and the many gilt frames on the wall; but to-day she went, unnoting, to the crayon picture of a man, and looked through tears at a plain, smiling, kindly face.

“I wish you hadn't died,” was all she said; but the tears rolled down her cheeks and her frame shook with sobs that she forced to be noiseless. At last she dried her wet cheeks and tossed her head. “I don't see that I need do anything,” she muttered, while she hurried round the house outside, in order that she might reach the bedroom and efface the traces of her weeping. “I'm a great fool to think of doing anything,” she declared. “I didn't put myself up, and I won't put myself down—and disappoint mother and all my friends. It's none of my business.” Therewith she assumed a light and cheerful air, which she carried securely through the remainder of the afternoon.

       * * * * *

The fifth evening of St. Kunagunda's fair opened with a stifling crowd. Protestants, Catholics, and Germans who never had seen the interior of an American church jostled the buyers at the booths, and the faithful dutifully ate turkey and cold rolls for the fifth time at the supper-tables. The outsiders did not linger at the booths; they were come to vote or to witness the voting, and their jests and comments buzzed noisily above the talk. Every moment the note of the buzz grew more hostile. More than a few ears were tingling; at every turn there were scowls and sullen eyes and ugly smiles. The matrons' cheeks were burning; their eyes flashed; every now and again one of their voices shrilled defiantly above the hoarse hum of the crowd. The young Irish girls were laughing, enjoying the excitement, and admiring the young men flaunting their banknotes with the swing of their father's shillalahs. The young German girls curled their lips and whispered together. There was a significant herding of the contending races apart, while the visiting Anglo-Saxons wore an air of safe and dispassionate enjoyment, such as pertains of right to the boy on the fence waiting for the fight.

Norah Murray had a circle of young men about her, who laughed rapturously at her sallies. She wore her chain and a new rhinestone brooch and all her rings. She looked very handsome with her flushed cheeks and bright eyes. She raised her voice to be heard above the din. Mrs. Murray's new bonnet nodded its red roses and black ostrich tips among the lace handkerchiefs and embroidery of the fancy table—she being enthroned on the step-ladder for lack of other seat—and her delighted eyes ran from her daughter to the voting blackboard. She waved a spangled fan and smiled buoyantly at every familiar face, whether turned towards her in recognition or not. Mrs. O'Brien, who had slipped away from the kitchen to be sure the lamps were not smoking, stopped a moment beside her. Mrs. O'Brien looked tired and worried when she let her own smile of greeting slip from her face. A tinge of the same expression was on Father Kelly's kind old countenance, but the Vicar-General's features were as inscrutable as a doctor's. He had made a genial procession through the room, distributing the merited praise at each booth, and appreciably softening the atmosphere by his presence. He halted opposite Norah's party. Father Kelly's gaze grew anxious. “I mind me,” said he—“I mind me of the child when her father died—not six she was—holding her mother's hand, not weeping herself, the creature, just stroking her mother's hand and petting her; and holding the baby, the one that's off to the seminary now. Her father was an honest man. He failed once, and then paid every dollar with interest—an honest man. I mind me of little Norah at her first communion—”

The Vicar-General smiled. “Kelly, you're a good fellow,” said he, not removing his glance from Norah's excited face.

“She'll come out all right, all right,” said Father Kelly, with the hammer-like gesture of his right fist which his congregation knew well for a storm signal. “She's a good girl. This is no fault of hers, this foolish contraption to make money; I'm one with Conner, there; but the girls aren't to blame. Freda's a good girl, too. That's she coming.”

The German heroine of this miniature Nibelungenlied was tall and slender, fair haired and fair faced. Her face wore a placid air; she looked perfectly serene and had assumed unconsciousness as a garment; she did not talk, only faintly smiled in return to the greetings that met her on every side. To right and left, before and behind her, walked her two aunts and her two neighbors, women of substance and dignity. They walled her about as might a body-guard, sending eye-blinks of defiance at the hilarious young Irishmen. Mrs. Orendorf, of the guard, went the length of twisting her head for a final glare of disapproval at Norah, in passing. Norah laughed. “I used to know Freda Burglund last week,” said she, “but I guess she has forgotten me.”

“She's too busy with the blackboard, doing arithmetic,” joked one of the young men.

“You ought to see old Fritz!” cried another; “he's clean off his base. He's mortgaged his farm to Nichols. Nichols didn't want to lend, but he would have the money.”

“Well, I guess we'll give him a run for his pile.”

“He's mortgaged his farm!” said a third young man; when his voiced sounded, the very slightest of movements of Norah's head betrayed that she listened.

“I'd mortgage two farms if I had them,” was the gallant comment from the first man, “if Miss Norah needed votes.”

The third man felt the rustle of every dollar he had, drawn out of the bank that morning, and now bulging his waistcoat-pocket in company with a bit of ribbon that had dropped from Norah's hair; but it was easier for him to make money than talk; he was ready to push the last of it over the voting-table for Norah, but he wasn't ready of tongue; he put his big honest hands in his pocket, and lest he should glower too openly at the fluent blade, sent his eyes after Freda Berglund's yellow head and fine shoulders. Norah could see him. She stiffened.

“I don't think it very nice of her to let her father mortgage his farm,” said a fourth partisan of Norah's; “he'd better buy her a watch out and out; you can get a good one for ten dollars. She'd ought to stop the old man. Her mother would if she were alive.”

“Fritz ain't so easy headed off,” said the third man. “Miss Freda is a very nice young lady; I don't believe she knows about it.”

He kept his eyes on the yellow head, this unfortunate bungler, who had been in love with Norah since he had worn knickerbockers, and Norah held her own head higher in the air. And she let Mr. Williamson, the new book-keeper at Conner's (he who would have mortgaged two farms for her), take her to the ice-cream table, leaving the bungling lover (christened Patrick Maurice, his surname being Barnes), to jostle dismally over to the apron table, where Freda was.

Norah laughed at Mr. Williamson's jokes, and asked him questions about the business college from which he had recently been graduated, and was the picture of soft animation and pleasure; and the while her heart was like lead, and she hated Freda Berglund. Sitting at the table she heard snatches of talk, all tinctured by the strong excitement of the evening. “I can't help it if they do quarrel,” she thought, angrily, answering her own accusation; not even to herself did she say that she hated Freda.

Her eyes wandered a second over the hall; they saw the Vicar-General's pale, handsome face, a half-head taller than Father Kelly's good gray head; they saw a square-jawed, black-haired, determined, smiling young man behind the ballot-box turning his eyes from Pat Barnes to an elderly man who held up his hand, waving a roll of bills.

“Ah, I see Berglund has arrived,” said Williamson. “You are going to do a lot to build the church, Miss Norah.”

Berglund was rather a short man; his hair was gray; he limped from the old wound received at Shiloh. Something clutched at Norah's heart as she looked at him. Williamson made some trivial joke; she did not hear it; she was hearing over again the words of the German woman to Mrs. O'Brien that afternoon. Impulsively she sprang to her feet. “Will you excuse me, Mr. Williamson?” she exclaimed. “I have to go to the voting-booth one moment.” She went so swiftly that Williamson had much ado to keep pace with her, besides overpaying the waitress in his hurry. Father Kelly swallowed a groan of dismay at the fresh strain on his faith when he perceived her beckoning a ring-laden hand at the custodian of votes; and the Vicar-General involuntarily frowned. They both with one accord pushed up to the table—to the visible relief of the young man behind it. “I don't know what to do,” he confided to Father Kelly, before the latter could ask the question quivering on his tongue—“I don't know what to do. Miss Murray wants me not to take in any more money 'til I hear from her again. She'll be back. And here's old Berglund wants three hundred and fifty dollars' worth for Miss Freda, and here's Barnes with a big bunch for Miss Murray, trying to scare off the old man. What'll I do, Father?”

“I guess you better not do anything,” said Father Kelly, with a twinkle in his eye. “Norah Murray is apt to have a good reason for her asking. Shut the booth down, and I'll take charge while you go off for a cup of coffee.”

The Vicar-General nodded approval.

“Well, just's you say, Father,” said the young man; “it's kind of unprecedented.”

“What do you suppose it means?” puzzled the Vicar-General, in an undertone, as the vote-taker disappeared; and the crowd fell back a little on Father Kelly's bland announcement that Mr. Duffy had been called off for a few minutes, and there would be a recess in voting.

“'Tis beyond me,” said Father Kelly, “but watch the girl; she's gone straight to Freda Berglund. There, they're talking; they're going off together with Mrs. Orendorf. I can't give a guess, but she's a good girl. I'm hopeful.”

Norah had indeed gone straight to Freda Berglund. She addressed her in so low a voice that only Freda and Mrs. Orendorf, bending across Freda's shoulders at that instant, the better to cheapen a darning-bag for stockings, could hear her words. “I want to see you, Freda,” she said. “Won't you and Mrs. Orendorf come away somewhere so we can talk? I have got something important to say.”

“I—don't—know,” faltered Freda.

“I want Mrs. O'Brien, too,” said Norah, firmly. “It's all right; you'll think it all right, Mrs. Orendorf. Come, come; don't you see those men who have been drinking? Don't you hear them? Don't you see Mrs. Finn, who used to think there was nobody like Mrs. Conner, looking the other way so's not to see her? Can't you hear the quarrelling all round? They've stopped voting, but they haven't stopped quarrelling. Come!”

Although she had dropped her voice, the listeners were so close that they caught snatches of the sentences, and craned their necks forward and hushed their own talk to listen. Mrs. Orendorf was not of a nimble habit of thought; but she felt the electric impetus of the Irish girl; besides, was she not bidden? Could she not protect Freda from the machinations of the enemy?

“Dot's so, Freda,” she concluded, stolidly. “Koom den, der only blace vere we can talk py uns is dot coal-closet wo is der eggstry ice-cream freezer. Koom. I see Meezis O'Breen.”

Amid a startling pause, every eye questioning them, the three picked up Mrs. O'Brien and sought the coal-closet. Then Norah turned. In the dim light her face shone whitely. Her full melodious voice shook the least in the world with haste and excitement. “We've got to stop this,” said she, “and I know how. Freda, I am going to withdraw my name. I wish to Heaven I never had let them put it on. You may have the watch.”

Freda's tall figure was only an outline in the shadow; they could not see her face; but the outline wavered backward. Her voice was stiff and cold.

“I don't think that's fair. You have more votes than I have.”

Mrs. O'Brien opened her lips and shut them tightly. It was so dark no one saw her, or Mrs. Orendorf, as she sat on the freezer gulping down inaudible opinions regarding Norah's sanity.

“I sha'n't have,” retorted Norah, impatiently, “when your father spends all his money that he mortgaged his farm—”

“What!” cried Freda.

“She not know; ve keep it von her,” muttered Mrs. Orendorf. “Fritz make me promise not to tell.”

“Well, he didn't make me,” said Norah. “I'll tell. He raised the money, and he was trying to buy the votes, and I saw him. I haven't any father. I can't remember anything of my father except his leading me about when I was a little thing by the finger, and how kind his voice was; but I miss him—I miss him all the time; I know he was a good man, and loved me; and he'd have done anything for me, just as your father is doing; and I couldn't have borne it to have him, and I was sure you couldn't, either. Freda, it's all wrong, this spending more money than they can afford on us; I've felt it all along. Now let's stop it. The church has got enough.”

“Is it true about papa?” said Freda, in German.

Ach Himmel! Yes, my child. Dost thou not know thy father yet? For all he seems still and stern, thou art more than all the world to him.” Mrs. Orendorf spoke in the same tongue; her other listeners could not understand it, but they marvelled over the soft change in her voice.

“It's true enough, Miss Freda,” said Mrs. O'Brien, gently. “And maybe you're in the right of it, Norah darling, though 'tis a bit hard to give in; but, yes, I'm sure you're right.”

“You are right,” said Freda, “and it's all been wrong, all wrong. But I've got to see my father first. Please come with me.”

As Norah had led them in the first place, Freda led them by an equally potent although entirely different force now; it was Norah's turn to follow, blindly.

A hush everywhere in their wake betrayed that a consciousness of their conference and its importance was in the air. Freda was pale, Norah's cheeks burned, but neither girl looked to the right or the left; and both the matrons following avoided their friends' curiosity by a soldierly “eyes front.” Freda walked up to her father, who looked up, not altogether pleased, at her light touch on his arm.

“This is no place for thee, my child,” said he; something in her face made his voice gentler than common. She looked, he thought, dimly, as she had looked when they got the news about Otto.

“I have to say something,” said Freda.

“You beples stand back!” commanded Mrs. Orendorf, with a backward impulse of her elbows.

“Yes, you stand back, ladies and gentlemen, please,” begged Mrs. O'Brien, smiling; “'twill all be explained to yous.” Only Norah stood her ground; and Pat Barnes kept in the front rank of the bystanders.

“What is it?” growled Berglund, bristling at the circle of faces much readier for peace than war.

“She wants to give the watch to me,” explained Freda, rapidly repeating almost word for word Norah's offer. As she spoke suspicion wrinkled the corners of old Fritz's eyes.

“Maypi sie know sie vill git peten,” he muttered, loud enough for Norah to hear. Then, as he saw her color turn, his hard face softened. “No,” he said, clearly, “it don't be dot; dot Pat Barnes got his pocket full of moneys; no, sie is a goot schild, und her fader he vas a goot mans; sie haf a hard dime mit no fader to look oudt for her.” He turned to Norah, whose swimming eyes met his full. Pat Barnes tried to cough down his emotion and made a strange squeak; but nobody smiled; the crowded hall was curiously still as Fritz limped up to Norah. “No, ve don't can take it off you; can ve, Freda?” said he.

Freda slipped her hand into her father's arm. “No, Norah,” she said. “I withdraw my name. And I'm prouder to have my father than all the watches in the world!”

“Sure, you're right there, mavourneen,” cried Mrs. O'Brien. “Whisht, all of you! These blessid children have got the way out of all this mess; they're better Christians than anny of us.” Mrs. Orendorf frowned fiercely, reached for her handkerchief, and wiped her face.

Father Kelly felt it time for his own word, and stepped into the circle. A sentence or two from Mrs. O'Brien made the quick-witted old Irishman master of the incident.

“As I understand it,” his full, rich, Celtic tones purred, “'tis the feeling of both these young ladies that there is hard feeling and strife and wasteful spending of money coming out of what was meant to be a good-natured contest for the good of the church; but this disputing, this spending, are neither for the good of the church nor the glory of God—far from it—God forgive us our weakness. So both these young ladies withdrew their names. We have cause to be proud of them both, as they surely have cause to be proud of the loyalty of their friends.” (Irrepressible applause.) “And the kindest thing their friends can do is to shake hands all around.” (A voice—in point of fact, the voice of the widow Murray: “But what will the sodality do with the watch?”) “The watch is the property of the parish.” Here Father Kelly paused, his persuasive argument rolling back on himself; he didn't know what to do with the watch. It was too perilous to run the risk of new discords over it. The priest cast a distress rocket in a look at the Vicar-General; but the Vicar-General perfidiously smiled and looked away.

Up spoke Norah, her sweet voice not quite steady, her cheeks crimson—but they all heard her: “It's a large gold watch. Why can't we give it to Father Kelly?”

The Vicar-General's lifted hand stilled the shout that rose.

“Why not?” called he. “Father Kelly is not a young lady, but he is popular.”

And Father Kelly, putting both hands over his blushes, ran away from the frantic roar of applause and laughter. The Vicar-General pursued him to say:

“You were right, Kelly; she is a good girl—and a wise one!”

Perhaps the only person in the hall who was not either shouting or screaming, according to sex, was Norah's mother; and the cloud on her face lightened when she saw Norah coming to her on Pat Barnes's arm and Pat's face aglow.

Freda saw them too; she slipped her hand into her father's arm.

Liebchen!” said he, stroking it with his rough fingers, “I will get thee a watch some day, never fear!”

But it was not the thought of a watch that made Freda's heart lighter than for many a day. “I don't want a watch,” said she. “Oh, I'm sorry for Norah, who can't even remember about her father!”


Back to the Index Page