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|Subject: "S is for Shiftless Susanna" Sun Sep 11, 2011 2:37 am|| |
"You look glorious. What's the special programme you've laid out for this morning, Sue?" said Susanna's husband, coming upon her in her rose garden early on a certain perfect October morning.
"I feel glorious too" young Mrs. Fairfax said, returning his kiss and dropping basket and scissors to bestow all her attention upon his buttonhole rose. "There is no special occasion for all this extravagance," she added, giving a complacent downward glance at the filmy embroideries of her gown, and her small whiteshod feet. "In fact, to-day breaks before me a long and delicious blank. I don't know when I have had such a Saturday. I shall write letters this morning--or perhaps wash my hair--I don't know. And then I'll take Mrs. Elliot for a drive this afternoon, or take some fruit to the Burkes, maybe, and stop for tea at the club. And if you decide to dine in town, I'll have Emma set my dinner out on the porch and commence my new Locke. And if you can beat that programme for sheer idle bliss," said Susanna, "let me hear you do it!"
She finished fastening his rose, stepped back to survey it, and raised to his eyes her own joyous, honest blue eyes, which still were as candid as a nice child's. Jim Fairfax, keenly alive to the delight of it, even after six months of marriage, kissed her again.
"You know, Jim," said Susanna, when they were presently sauntering with their load of roses toward the house and breakfast, "apropos of this new dress, I believe I put it on just because there was no real reason for it. It is so delightful sometimes to get into dainty petties, and silk stockings, and a darling new gown, just as a matter of course! All my life, you know, I've had just one good outfit at a time, and sometimes less than that, and all the things I wore every day were so awfully plain--!"
"I know, my darling," Jim said, a little gravely. For he was always sorry to remember that there had been long years of poverty and struggle in Susanna's life before the day when he had found her, an underpaid librarian in a dark old law library, in a dark old street. Susanna, buoyant, ambitious, and overworked, had never stopped in her hard daily round long enough to consider herself pitiful, but she could look back from her rose garden now to the days before she knew Jim, and join him in a little shudder of reminiscence.
"I don't believe a long, idle day will ever seem anything but a joyous holiday to me," she said now. "It seems so curious still, not to be expected anywhere every morning!"
"Well, you may as well get used to it," Jim told her smilingly. But a few minutes later, when Susanna was busy with the coffee-pot, he looked up from a letter to say: "Here's a job for you, after all, to-day, Sue! This--" and he flattened the crackling sheets beside his plate, "this is from old Thayer."
"Thayer himself?" Susanna echoed appreciatively. For old Whitman Thayer, in whose hands lay the giving of contracts far larger than any that had as yet been handled by Jim or his senior partners in the young firm of Reid, Polk & Fairfax, Architects, was naturally an enormously important figure in his and Susanna's world. They spoke of Thayer nearly every night, Jim reporting to his interested wife that Thayer had "come in," or "hadn't come in," that Thayer had "seemed pleased," that Thayer had "jumped" on this, or had "been tickled to death" with that; and the Fairfax domestic barometer varied accordingly.
"Go on, Jim," said Susanna, in suspense.
"Why, it seems that his wife--she's awfully sweet and nice," Jim proceeded, "is coming into town this afternoon, and she wonders if it would be too much trouble for Mrs. Fairfax to come in and lunch with her and help her with some shopping."
"Jim, it doesn't say that!" But Susanna's eyes were kindling with joy at the thought. "Oh, Jim, what a chance! Doesn't that look as if he really liked you!"
"Liked you, you mean," Jim said, giving her the letter. "Now I call that a very friendly, decent thing for them to do," young Mr. Fairfax went on musingly. "If you and she like each other, Sue--"
"Oh, don't worry, we will!" Mrs. Fairfax was always sure of her touch upon a feminine heart.
"Wonder why he didn't think of Mrs. Reid or Mrs. Polk?" said Jim.
"Oh, Jim, they are sort of--stiff, don't you know?" Susanna returned to her coffee, seasoning Jim's cup carefully before she added, with a look of naive pleasure that Jim thought very charming: "You know I rather thought that Mr. Thayer liked me just that one day I saw him!"
"Well, you'll like her," Jim prophesied. "She's very sweet and gentle, not very strong. They live right up the line there somewhere. She rarely comes into town. Old Thayer is devoted to her, and he always seems--" Jim hesitated. "I don't know," he went on, "I may be all wrong about this, Sue, but Thayer always seems to be protecting her, don't you know? I don't imagine he'd want to run her up against society women like Jane Reid and Mrs. Polk. You're younger and less affected; you're approachable. I don't know, but it seems to me that way. Anyway," he finished with supreme satisfaction, "I wouldn't take anything in the world for this chance! It shows the old man is really in earnest."
"He says she'll be at the office at eleven," said Susanna. "That means I must get the ten twenty-two."
"Sure. And take a taxi when you get to town. Got money? Got the right clothes?"
"Hydrangea hat," Susanna decided aloud. "New pongee, and pongee coat hung in careless elegance over my arm. As the last chime of eleven rings I will step into your office--"
"I hope to goodness you will!" said Jim, with an anxious look. "You'll really get there, won't you, Sue? No slips?"
This might have seemed overemphatic to an unprejudiced outsider. But no one who really knew Susanna would have blamed her young husband for an utter disbelief in the likelihood of her getting anywhere at any given time. Susanna's one glaring fault was a cheerful indifference to the fixed plans of others. Engagements she forgot, ignored, or cancelled at the last minute; dinner guests, arriving at her lovely home, never dreamed how often the consternation of utter surprise was hidden under the hilarious greetings of hostess and host. Dressmakers and dentists charged Susanna mercilessly for forgotten appointments; but an adoring circle of friends had formed a sort of silent conspiracy to save her from herself, and socially she suffered much less than she deserved.
"But some day you'll get an awful jolt; you'll get the lesson of your life, Sue," Jim used to say, and Susanna always answered meekly:
"Oh, Jim, I know it!"
"My mother used to have a nursery rhyme about me," she told Jim on one occasion. "It was one of those 'A is for Amiable Annie' things, you know; 'K is for Kind little Katie, whose weight is one hundred and eighty'--you've heard them, of course? Well, 'S was for Shiftless Susanna.' I know the next line was, 'But such was the charm of her manner'--but I've forgotten the rest. Whether mother made that up for my especial benefit or not, I don't know."
"Well, you have the charm all right," Jim was obliged to confess, for Susanna had an undeniable genius for adjustment and placation. Nobody was angry long at Susanna, perhaps because so many other people were always ready to step in gladly and fill any gaps in her programme. She was too popular to be snubbed. And her excuses were always so reasonable!
"You know I simply lose my mind at the telephone," she would plead. "I accept anything then--it never occurs to me that we may have engagements!" Or, "Well, the Jacksons said Thursday," she would brilliantly elucidate, "and Mrs. Oliver said the twentieth, and it never occurred to me that it was the same day!"
And she was always willing--this was the maddening part of Susanna!-to own herself entirely in the wrong, and always ended any conversation on the subject with a cheerful: "But anyway, I'm improving, you admit that, don't you, Jim? I'm not nearly as bad as I used to be!"
She said now very seriously: "Jim, darling, you may depend upon me. I realize what this means, and I am perfectly delighted to have the chance. At eleven to-day, 'one if by land, and two if by sea,' I'll be at your office. Trust me!"
"I do, dearest," Jim said. And he went down the drive a little later, under the blazing glory of the maples with great content in his heart. Susanna, going about her pretty house briskly, felt so sure of herself that the day's good work seemed half accomplished already.
She had adjusted the skirt of the pongee suit, and pinned the hydrangea hat at a fascinating angle when the telephone rang.
Susanna slipped her bare arms into the stiff sleeves of a Mandarin coat and crossed the hall to the instrument.
"Hello, Susanna!" said the cheerful voice of young Mrs. Harrington, a neighbor and friend, at the other end of the telephone. "I just rang up to know if I could come over early and help you out with anything and whether--"
"Help me out with anything?" Mrs. Fairfax's voice ranged through delicate shades of surprise to dawning consternation. "Help me out with what?"
"Why, you told me yourself that this was the day of the bridge-club lunch at your house!" Mrs. Harrington said, almost indignantly. But immediately she became mirthful. "Oh, Susanna, Susanna! You haven't forgotten--oh, you have! Oh, you poor girl, what will you do! Listen, I could bring a--"
"Oh, my goodness, Ethel--and I've got to go to town!" Susanna's tone was hushed with a sort of horror. "And those seven women will be here at half-past twelve! And not one thing in the house--"
"Oh, you could get Ludovici as far as the lunch goes, Sue. But the girls will think it's odd, perhaps. Couldn't you wait and take the one o'clock?"
"Yes, I'll get Ludovici," Susanna decided hastily. "No, I couldn't do that. But I'll tell you what I could do. If you'll be an angel, Ethel, and do the honors until I get here, I could lunch early, get through my business in town, and get the one-fifty train for home--"
"Well, that'll be all right. I'll explain," said the amiable Mrs. Harrington.
A few minutes later Mrs. Fairfax left the telephone and went down to the kitchen to explain to Emma and Veronica, the maids, that there would be a luncheon for eight ladies served by a caterer, in her home, that day, and that they must simply assist him. She herself must be in town unfortunately, but Mrs. Harrington had very kindly offered to come over and be hostess and play the eighth hand of bridge afterward. Emma and Veronica, perhaps more hardened to these emergencies than are ordinary maids, rose to the occasion, and Susanna hurried off to her train satisfied that as far as the actual luncheon was concerned, all would go well. But what the seven women would think was another story!
"I don't suppose Mrs. Thayer wants to do so very much shopping," said Susanna to herself, hurrying along. "If I meet her at eleven and we lunch at one, say, I don't see why I shouldn't get the onefifty train home. I'd get here before the girls had fairly started playing bridge, and explain--somehow one can always explain things so much better in person--"
"Or suppose we lunched at half-past twelve," her uneasy thoughts ran on. "That gives us an hour and a half to shop--that ought to be plenty. But we mustn't lose a minute getting started! Mrs. Thayer will come up in her motor--that will save us time. We can start right off the instant I get to Jim's office."
She stopped at the caterer's for a brief but satisfactory interview. The caterer was an artist, but his enthusiasms this morning were wasted upon Susanna.
"Yes, yes--cucumber sandwiches by all means," she assented hastily, "and the ices--just as you like! Plain, I think--or did you say in cases? I don't care. Only don't fail me, Mr. Ludovici."
Fail her? Mr. Ludovici's lexicon did not know the word. Susanna breathed more freely as she crossed the sunny village street to the train.
The station platform was deserted and bare. Susanna, accustomed to a breathless late arrival, could saunter with delightful leisure to the ticket-seller's window.
"You've not forgotten the new time-table?" said the agent, pleasantly, when they had exchanged greetings.
"Oh, does the change begin to-day?" Susanna looked blank.
"October sixteenth, winter schedule," he reminded her buoyantly. "Going to be lots of engagements missed to-day!"
"But mine is very important and I cannot miss it," said Susanna, displeased at his levity. "I must be in Mr. Fairfax's office at eleven."
"You won't be more than ten or twelve minutes late," said young Mr. Green, consolingly. "You tell Mr. Fairfax it's up to the N.Y. and E.W."
Susanna smiled perfunctorily, but took her place in the train with a sinking heart. She would be late, of course, and Jim would be angry, of course. Late to-day, when every minute counted and the programme allowed for not an instant's delay! Her eyes on the flying countryside, she rehearsed her part, found herself eloquently explaining to a pacified Jim, capturing a gracious Mrs. Thayer, successfully reaching home again, and explaining to an entirely amiable bridge club.
It could be done, of course, but it meant a pretty full day! Susanna's mind reverted uneasily to the consideration that she had already bungled matters. Oh, well, if she was late, she was late, that was all; and if Jim was furious, why, Jim would simply have to be furious! And she began her explanations again--
After all, it was but fifteen minutes past eleven when she walked into her husband's office. But neither Jim nor Mrs. Thayer was there.
"Mr. Fairfax went out not three minutes ago," said the pretty stenographer in the outer office. Susanna, brought to a full stop, stared at her blankly.
"Yes, with Mrs. Thayer to the dentist. He said to say he was afraid you had missed your train. There's a note."
The note was forthwith produced. Susanna read it frowningly. It was rather conspicuously headed "Eleven-twelve!"
DEAREST GIRL: Can't wait any longer. Mrs. T. must see her dentist (Archibald). I'm taking her up. Thayers and we lunch at the Palace at one-thirty. Wait for me in my office. J. F.
"Oh, what is the matter with everything to-day!" Susanna burst out in exasperation. "He's wild, of course. When does he ever sign himself 'J. F.' to me! When did they go?" she asked Miss Perry, briefly, with an unreasonable wish that she might somehow hold that irreproachable young woman responsible.
"Just about three minutes ago," said Miss Perry. "He said that if you had missed your train, you wouldn't be here for more than an hour, and it was no use waiting."
"You see, it was a changed time-table, and he forgot it just as I did," explained Susanna, pleased to find him fallible, even to that extent.
"But he was on time," fenced Miss Perry, innocently.
"They don't change the business trains," Susanna said coldly. And she decided that she disliked this girl. She opened a magazine and sat down by the open window.
The minutes ticked slowly by. The telephone rang, doors opened and shut, and men came and went through the office. Susanna, opposed in every fibre of her being to passive waiting, suddenly rose.
"Dr. Archibald is in the First National Bank Building, isn't he?" she inquired. "I think I'll join Mrs. Thayer up there. There's no use in my waiting here."
Miss Perry silently verified Dr. Archibald's address in the telephone book, and to the First National Bank Building Susanna immediately made her way. It was growing warmer now and the streets seemed noisy and crowded, but no matter--"If I can only get to them and see Jim!" thought Susanna.
In the pleasant shadiness of Dr. Archibald's office, rising from a delightful mahogany arm-chair, Susanna presently asked if Mrs. Thayer could be told that Mrs. Fairfax was there.
"I think Mrs. Thayer is gone," said the attendant pleasantly. "I'm not sure, but I'll see."
In a few minutes she returned to inform Mrs. Fairfax that Mrs. Thayer had just come in to have a bridge replaced, and was gone.
"You don't know where?" Susanna's voice was a trifle husky with repressed emotion. She realized that she was getting a headache.
No, the attendant didn't know where.
So there was nothing for it but to go back to Jim's office, and back Susanna accordingly went. She walked as fast as she could, conscious of every separate hot step, and was nervous and headachy when she entered Miss Perry's presence again.
Mr. Fairfax and Mrs. Thayer had not come in; no, but Miss Perry reported that Mr. Fairfax had telephoned not ten minutes ago, and seemed very anxious to get hold of his wife.
"Oh, dear, dear!" lamented Susanna. "And where is he now?"
Miss Perry couldn't say. "I wrote his message down," she said, with sympathetic amusement at Susanna's crushed dismay. And, referring to her notes, she repeated it:
"Mr. Fairfax said that Mrs. Thayer had had an appointment to see a sick friend in a hospital this afternoon. But she has gone right out there now instead, so that you and she can go shopping after lunch. You are, please, to meet Mr. Fairfax and the Thayers at the Palace for luncheon at half-past one; there'll be a table reserved. Mr. Fairfax has a little business to attend to just now, but if you don't mind waiting in the office, he thinks it's the coolest place you could be. He wanted to know if you had the whole afternoon free-"
"Oh, absolutely!" Susanna assented eagerly. This was not the time to speak or think of the bridge club.
"And that was all," finished Miss Perry, "except he said perhaps you would like to look at the plans of the orphanage. Mr. Fairfax got them out to show to Mr. Thayer this afternoon. I can get them for you."
"Oh, thank you! I do want to see them!" said Susanna, gratefully. And she established herself comfortably by the open window, the orphanage plans, a stiff roll of blue paper, in her lap, her idle eyes following the noonday traffic in the street below.
What a shame to have to sit here doing nothing, to-day of all days, for nearly two hours! Susanna thought. Why, she could have met her luncheon guests, seen that the meal was at least under way, apologized in person, and then started for town. As it was, they might be angry, and no wonder! And these were her neighbors and very good friends, after all, the women upon whose good feeling half the joy of her country home and garden depended. It was too bad!
She glanced at the blue-prints, but one of her sudden inspirations turned the page blank. What time was it? Ten minutes of twelve. She referred to her new timetable. Ten minutes of--why, she could just catch the noon train, rush home, meet her guests, explain, and come back easily on the one o'clock. But would it be wise? Why not?
Her thoughts in a jumble, Susanna hastily gathered her small possessions together, moved to a decision by the always imperative argument that in a few minutes it would be too late to decide.
"Heavens! I'm glad I thought of that!" she ejaculated, seating herself in the train as the noon whistles shrilled all over the city. A moment later she was a trifle disconcerted to find the orphanage plans still in her hand.
"Well, this is surely one of my crazy days!" Susanna strapped the stiff sheets firmly to her handbag. "I must not forget to take those back," she told herself. "Jim will ask for them the very first thing."
Her house; when she reached it, seemed quiet, seemed empty. Susanna crossed the porch, wondering, and encountered the maid.
"Emma! Nobody come?"
"Sure you had the wrong day of it," said Emma, beaming. "Mrs. Harrington fomed about an hour ago, and she says 'tis next Saturday thin!"
"What do you mean?" said Susanna, sharply.
"'Tis not to-day they're comin', Mrs. Fairfax--"
"Nonsense!" Susanna said under her breath. She flew to her desk and snatched up the scribbled card of engagements. "Why, it's no such thing!" she said indignantly. "Of course it's to-day! October sixteenth, as plain as print." And with her eyes still on the card she reached for her desk telephone.
"Ethel," said Susanna, a moment later. "Listen, Ethel, this is Susanna. Ethel, what made you say the club luncheon wasn't to-day? This is my day to have the girls.... Certainly.... Why, I don't care what she said, I have it written down!... Why, I think that's very funny.... I have it written.... No, you can laugh all you want to, but I know I'm right.... No, that's nothing. Jim will eat it all up to-morrow; he says he never gets enough to eat on Sundays.... But I can't understand, and I don't believe yet that I... Yes, it's written right here; I've got my eyes on it now! It's the most extraordinary...."
A little vexed at Mrs. Harrington's unbounded amusement, Susanna terminated the conversation as soon as was decently possible, and went kitchenward. In her anxiety not to miss her train back to the city, she refused Teresa's offer of dainty sandwiches, pastries, and tea, and merely stopped long enough to brush up her hair and to ascertain by carefully enumerating them out loud that she had her purse, her gloves, the orphanage plans, and the new time-table.
"This will seem very funny," said poor Susanna, gallantly to herself, as she took her seat in the train and tried to ignore a really sharp headache, "when once I see them! If I can only get hold of Jim, and if the afternoon goes smoothly, I shan't mind anything!"
Only ten minutes late for her luncheon engagement, Susanna entered the cool depths of the restaurant and, piloted by an impressed head waiter, looked confidently for her own party. It was very pleasant here, and the trays of salads and iced things that were borne continually past her were very inviting.
But still there was no Mrs. Thayer and no Jim. Susanna waited a few nervous minutes, sat down, got up again, and finally, at two o'clock, went out into the blazing, unfriendly streets, and walked the five short squares that lay between the restaurant and her husband's office. A hot, dusty wind blew steadily against her; the streets were full of happy girls and men with suit-cases, bound for the country and a day or two of fresh air and idleness. Miss Perry was putting the cover on her typewriter as Susanna entered the office, her own suit-case waiting in a corner. She looked astonished as Susanna came in.
"My goodness, Mrs. Fairfax!" she ejaculated. "We've been trying and trying to get you by telephone! Mr. Fairfax was so anxious to get hold of those orphanage plans. Mr. Thayer wanted--"
"I've been following him about all day," said Susanna, with an undignified, but uncontrollable gulp. She sat down limply. "What happened to the luncheon plan?" she asked forlornly. "Where is Mr. Fairfax?"
Miss Perry, perhaps softened by the sight of Susanna's filling eyes and tired face, became very sympathetic. "Isn't it too bad--I know you have! But you see Mrs. Thayer couldn't see her friend in the hospital this morning, so she came right down here and got here not ten minutes after you left. She said she couldn't wait for you, as she had to be back at the hospital at two, so she would do a little shopping herself and let the rest wait."
"Well," said Susanna, after a pause in which her very soul rebelled, "it can't be helped, I suppose! Did Mr. Fairfax go out with her?"
"He was to take her somewhere for a cup of tea and then he was going home."
"Going home! But I've just come from there!"
"He thought he'd probably catch you there, I think. He was anxious to get hold of those plans."
"Oh, I could cry--" Susanna began despairingly. But indeed Miss Perry needed no assurance of that. "I could cry!" said Susanna again. "To-day," she expanded, "has been simply one miserable accident after another! I hope it'll be a lesson to me! Well--" She broke off short, for Miss Perry, while kind, was human, and was visibly conscious that she had promised her brother and sister-inlaw to be at their house in East Auburndale, a populous suburb, long before it was time to put the baby to bed. "I suppose there's nothing for me to do but go home," finished Susanna, discontentedly.
"Accidents will happen!" trilled Miss Perry, blithely, hurrying for her car.
Susanna went thoughtfully home, reflecting soberly upon the events of the day. If she could but live this episode down, she told herself; but meet and win Mrs. Thayer somehow in the near future; but bring Jim to the point of entirely forgetting and forgiving the whole disgraceful day, she would really reform. She would "keep lists," she would "make notes," and she would "think twice." In short, she would do all the things that those who had her good at heart had been advising for the past ten years.
Of course, if the Thayers were resentful--refused to be placated-Susanna made a little wry mouth. But they wouldn't be!
Still deep in stimulating thoughts of a complete reformation, Susanna reached home again, crossed the deep-tiled porch with its potted olives and gay awnings, entered the big hall now dim with afternoon shadows. Now for Jim--!
But where was Jim?
"Mr. Fairfax is home, Emma?"
"Oh, there you are, Mrs. Fairfax! And us trying and trying to telefome you! No ma'am, he's not home. He left on the three-twenty. He'd only come out in a rush for some papers, and he had to get back to town to see some one at once. There's a note--"
Susanna sat down. Her head was splitting, she was hungry and exhausted, and, at the effort she made to keep the tears out of her eyes, a wave of acute pain swept across her forehead. She opened the note.
If you can find a reliable messenger [said the note, without preamble], I wish you would get those orphanage plans to me at Thornton's office before six. I have to meet him there at four. The matter is really important, or I would not trouble you. I'll dine with Thayer at the club. J.F. The pretty hallway and the glaring strip of light beyond the open garden door swam suddenly before Susanna's eyes. The hand that held the note trembled.
"I could not be so mean to him!" said Susanna to herself. "But perhaps he was tired and hot--poor Jim!" And aloud she said with dignity: "I shall have to take this paper--these plans--in to Mr. Fairfax, Emma. I'll catch the four-twenty."
"You'll be dead!" said Emma, sympathetically.
"My head aches," Mrs. Fairfax admitted briefly. But when she was upstairs and alone she found herself suddenly giving way to the long deferred burst of tears.
After a while she bathed her eyes, brushed her hair, and substituted a more substantial gown for the pongee. Then she started out once more, refreshed and more cheerful in spite of herself, and soothed unconsciously by the quiet close of the lovely autumn afternoon.
Her own gateway was separated by a flight of shallow stone steps from the road, and Susanna paused there on her way to the train to gather her skirts safely for the dusty walk. And while she was standing there she found her gaze suddenly riveted upon a motor-car that, still a quarter of a mile away, was rapidly descend the slope of the hill, its two occupants fairly shaken by its violent and rapid approach. The road here was not wide, and curved on a sharp grade, and Susanna always found the descent of a large car, like this one, a matter of half-terrified fascination. But surely with this car there was more than the ordinary danger, she thought, with a sudden sick thumping at her heart. Surely here was something all wrong! Surely no sane driver--
"That man is drunk," she said, quite aloud. "He cannot make it! He can't possibly--ah-h-h!"
Her voice broke on a gasp, and she pressed one hand tight over her eyes. For with swift and terrible precision the accident had indeed come to pass. The car skidded, turned, hung for a sickening second on one wheel, struck the stone of the roadside fence with a horrible grinding jar and toppled heavily over against the bank.
When Susanna uncovered her eyes again, and before she could move or cry out in the dumb horror that had taken possession of her, she saw a man in golfing wear run from the Porters' gate opposite; and another motor, in which Susanna recognized the figure of a friend and neighbor, Dr. Whitney, swept up beside the overturned one. When she ran, as she presently found herself running, to the spot, other men and women had gathered there, drawn from lawns and porches by this sudden projection of tragedy into the gayety of their Saturday afternoon.
"Hurt?" gasped Susanna, joining the group.
"The man is--dead, Billy says," said young Mrs. Porter, in lowered tones, with an agitated clutch of Susanna's arm. "And, poor thing! she doesn't realize it, and she keeps asking where her chauffeur is and why he doesn't come to her!"
"Wouldn't you think people would have better sense than to keep a man like that!" added another neighbor, Dexter Ellis, with a bitterness born entirely of nervousness. "He was drunk as a lord! Young and I were just coming out of my side gate--"
Every one talked at once--there was a confusion of excited comment. Somebody had flung a carriage robe over the silent form of the man as it lay tumbled in the dust and weeds; Susanna glanced toward it with a shudder. Somehow she found herself supporting the car's other occupant, the woman, who was half sitting and half lying on the bank where she had fallen. The woman had opened her eyes and was looking slowly about the group; she had pushed away the whiskey the doctor held to her lips, but she looked sick and seemed in pain.
"I had just put the baby down when I heard Dex shout--" Susanna could hear Mrs. Ellis saying behind her in low tones. "Oh, it is, it's an outrage--they should have regarded it years ago," said another voice. "Merest chance in the world that we took the side gate," Dexter Ellis was saying, and some man's voice Susanna did not know reiterated over and over: "Well, I guess he's run his last car, poor fellow; I guess he's run his last car--"
"You feel better, don't you?" the doctor asked his patient, encouragingly. "Just open your mouth and swallow this." And Susanna said gently: "Just try it; you'll feel so much stronger!"
The woman turned upon her a pair of eyes as heavy as a sick animal's, and moistened her lips. "Arm," she said with difficulty.
"Her arm's broken," said the doctor, in a low tone, "and I think her leg, too. Kane has gone to wire for the ambulance. We'll get her right into town."
"You can't take her to town!" Susanna ejaculated, turning so that she might not be heard by the sufferer. "Take her in to my house."
"The hospital is really the most comfortable place for her, Mrs. Fairfax," the doctor said guardedly. "I am afraid there is internal injury. Her mind seems somewhat confused. You can't undertake the responsibility--"
"Ah, but you can't jolt the poor thing all the way into town--" Susanna began again. Mrs. Porter, at her shoulder, interrupted her in an earnest whisper:
"Sue, dear, it's always done. It won't take very long, and nobody expects you--"
"I know just how Susanna feels," interrupted Mrs. Ellis, "but after all, you never can tell--we don't know one thing about her--"
"She'll be taken good care of," finished the doctor, soothingly.
"Please--don't let them frighten--my husband--" said the woman herself, slowly, her distressed eyes moving from one face to another. "If I could--be moved somewhere before he hears--"
"We won't frighten him," Susanna assured her tenderly. "But will you tell us your name so we may let him know?"
The injured woman frowned. "I did tell you--didn't I?" she asked painfully.
"No"--Susanna would use this tone in her nursery some day--"No, dear, not yet."
"Tell us again," said the doctor, with too obvious an intention to soothe.
The woman gave him a look full of dignified reproach.
"If I could rest on your porch a little while," she said to Susanna, ignoring the others rather purposely, "I should be quite myself again. That will be best. Then I can think--I can't think now. These people--and my head--"
And she tried to rise, supporting herself with a hand on Susanna's arm. But with the effort the last vestige of color left her face, and she slipped, unconscious, back to the grass.
"Dead?" asked Susanna, very white.
"No--no! Only fainted," Dr. Whitney said. "But I don't like it," he added, his finger at the limp wrist.
"Bring her in, won't you?" Susanna urged with sudden decision. "I simply can't let her be taken 'way up to town! This way--"
And, relieved to have it settled, she led them swiftly across the garden and into the house, flung down the snowy covers of the guestroom bed, and with Emma's sympathetic help established the stranger therein.
"Trouble," whispered the injured woman apologetically, when she opened her eyes upon walls and curtains rioting with pink roses, and felt the delicious softness and freshness of the linen and pillows about her.
"Oh, don't think of that--I love to do it!" Susanna said honestly, patting her head. "A nurse is coming up from the village to look out for you, and she and the doctor are going to make you more comfortable."
The woman, fixing her with a dazed yet curiously intent look, formed with her lips the words, "God bless you," and wearily shut her eyes. Susanna, slipping out of the room a few minutes later, said over and over again to herself, "I don't care--I'm glad I did it!"
Still, it was not very reassuring to hear the big hall clock strike six, and suddenly to notice the orphanage plans lying where they had been flung on the hall table.
"I wish it was the middle of next year," said Susanna, thoughtfully, going out to sink wearily into a porch chair, "or even next week! I'd pretend to be asleep when Jim came home to-night," she went on gloomily, "if it wasn't my duty to sit up and explain that there are a perfect stranger and a trained nurse in the house. Of course, being there as I was, any humane person would have to do what I did, but it does seem strange, this day of all days, that I had to be there! And I wish I had thought to send those plans in by messenger-that would have been one thing the less to worry about, at least!-What is it, Emma?"
For Emma, mildly repeating some question, had come out to the porch. "Would you like tea, Mrs. Fairfax? I could bring it out here like you had it last week with your book."
Susanna brightened. After all, she had not eaten for a long while; tea would be very welcome. And the porch was delightful, and there was the new Locke.
"Well, that was my original idea, Emma," said she, "and although the day has not gone quite as I had planned, still there's no reason why the idea should be changed. Bring a supper-tea, Emma, lots of sandwiches--I'm combining three meals in one, Miss Smith," she broke off to explain smilingly, as the nurse, trimly clad in white, came to the doorway. "I've not eaten since breakfast. You must have some tea with me. And how is she? Is her mind clearer?"
"Oh, dear me, yes! She's quite comfortable," Miss Smith said cheerfully. "Doctor thinks there's no question of internal trouble. Her arm is broken and her ankle badly wrenched, but that's all. And she's so grateful to you, Mrs. Fairfax. It seems she has a perfect horror of hospitals, and she feels that you've done such a remarkably kind thing--taking her in. She asked to see you, and then we're going to try to make her sleep. Oh, and may I telephone her husband?"
"Oh, she could give you his name then!" cried Susanna, in relief. "Oh, I am glad! Indeed, you may telephone. Who is she?"
Miss Smith repeated the name and address.
Susanna, stared at her blankly. Then the most radiant of all her ready smiles lighted her face.
"Well, this is really the most extraordinary day!" she said softly, after a pause. "I'll come right up, Miss Smith, but perhaps you might let me telephone for you first. I can get her husband easily. I know just where he is. He and my own husband are dining together this evening, as it happens--"