Chapter 23 Wherein Elnora reaches a decision, and Freckles and the Ange_ppear
"Well, she came, didn't she?" remarked Mrs. Comstock to Elnora as they watche_he automobile speed down the road. As it turned the Limberlost corner, Phili_rose and waved to them.
"She hasn't got him yet, anyway," said Mrs. Comstock, taking heart. "What'_hat on your finger, and what did she say to you?"
Elnora explained about the ring as she drew it off.
"I have several letters to write, then I am going to change my dress and wal_own toward Aunt Margaret's for a little exercise. I may meet some of them, and I don't want them to see this ring. You keep it until Philip comes," sai_lnora. "As for what Miss Carr said to me, many things, two of importance: one, that I lacked every social requirement necessary for the happiness o_hilip Ammon, and that if I married him I would see inside a month that he wa_shamed of me——"
"Aw, shockins!" scorned Mrs. Comstock. "Go on!"
"The other was that she has been engaged to him for years, that he belongs t_er, and she refuses to give him up. She said that if he were in her presenc_ne hour, she would have him under a mysterious thing she calls 'her spell'
again; if he were where she could see him for one week, everything would b_ade up. It is her opinion that he is suffering from wounded pride, and tha_he slightest concession on her part will bring him to his knees before her."
Mrs. Comstock giggled. "I do hope the boy isn't weak-kneed," she said. "I jus_appened to be passing the west window this afternoon——"
Elnora laughed. "Nothing save actual knowledge ever would have made me believ_here was a girl in all this world so infatuated with herself. She speak_asually of her power over men, and boasts of 'bringing a man to his knees' a_omplacently as I would pick up a net and say: 'I am going to take _utterfly.' She honestly believes that if Philip were with her a short tim_he could rekindle his love for her and awaken in him every particle of th_ld devotion. Mother, the girl is honest! She is absolutely sincere! She s_elieves in herself and the strength of Phil's love for her, that all her lif_he will believe in and brood over that thought, unless she is taugh_ifferently. So long as she thinks that, she will nurse wrong ideas and pin_ver her blighted life. She must be taught that Phil is absolutely free, an_et he will not go to her."
"But how on earth are you proposing to teach her that?"
"The way will open."
"Lookey here, Elnora!" cried Mrs. Comstock. "That Carr girl is the handsomes_ark woman I ever saw. She's got to the place where she won't stop a_nything. Her coming here proves that. I don't believe there was a thing th_atter with that automobile. I think that was a scheme she fixed up to ge_hil where she could see him alone, as she worked to see you. If you are goin_eliberately to put Philip under her influence again, you've got to brac_ourself for the possibility that she may win. A man is a weak mortal, where _ovely woman is concerned, and he never denied that he loved her once. You ma_ake yourself downright miserable."
"But mother, if she won, it wouldn't make me half so miserable as to marr_hil myself, and then read hunger for her in his eyes! Some one has got t_uffer over this. If it proves to be me, I'll bear it, and you'll never hear _hisper of complaint from me. I know the real Philip Ammon better in ou_onths of work in the fields than she knows him in all her years of societ_ngagements. So she shall have the hour she asked, many, many of them, enoug_o make her acknowledge that she is wrong. Now I am going to write my letter_nd take my walk."
Elnora threw her arms around her mother and kissed her repeatedly. "Don't yo_orry about me," she said. "I will get along all right, and whatever happens, I always will be your girl and you my darling mother."
She left two sealed notes on her desk. Then she changed her dress, packed _mall bundle which she dropped with her hat from the window beside the willow, and softly went down stairs. Mrs. Comstock was in the garden. Elnora picked u_he hat and bundle, hurried down the road a few rods, then climbed the fenc_nd entered the woods. She took a diagonal course, and after a long wal_eached a road two miles west and one south. There she straightened he_lothing, put on her hat and a thin dark veil and waited the passing of th_ext trolley. She left it at the first town and took a train for Fort Wayne.
She made that point just in time to climb on the evening train north, as i_ulled from the station. It was after midnight when she left the car at Gran_apids, and went into the depot to await the coming of day.
Tired out, she laid her head on her bundle and fell asleep on a seat in th_omen's waiting-room. Long after light she was awakened by the roar and rattl_f trains. She washed, re-arranged her hair and clothing, and went into th_eneral waiting-room to find her way to the street. She saw him as he entere_he door. There was no mistaking the tall, lithe figure, the bright hair, th_ean, brown-splotched face, the steady gray eyes. He was dressed fo_ravelling, and carried a light overcoat and a bag. Straight to him Elnor_ent speeding.
"Oh, I was just starting to find you!" she cried.
"Thank you!" he said.
"You are going away?" she panted.
"Not if I am needed. I have a few minutes. Can you be telling me briefly?"
"I am the Limberlost girl to whom your wife gave the dress for Commencemen_ast spring, and both of you sent lovely gifts. There is a reason, a very goo_eason, why I must be hidden for a time, and I came straight to you—as if _ad a right."
"You have!" answered Freckles. "Any boy or girl who ever suffered one pang i_he Limberlost has a claim to the best drop of blood in my heart. You needn'_e telling me anything more. The Angel is at our cottage on Mackinac. Yo_hall tell her and play with the babies while you want shelter. This way!"
They breakfasted in a luxurious car, talked over the swamp, the work of th_ird Woman; Elnora told of her nature lectures in the schools, and soon the_ere good friends. In the evening they left the train at Mackinaw City an_rossed the Straits by boat. Sheets of white moonlight flooded the water an_aved a molten path across the breast of it straight to the face of the moon.
The island lay a dark spot on the silver surface, its tall trees sharpl_utlined on the summit, and a million lights blinked around the shore. Th_ight guns boomed from the white fort and a dark sentinel paced the rampart_bove the little city tucked down close to the water. A great tenor summerin_n the north came out on the upper deck of the big boat, and baring his head, faced the moon and sang: "Oh, the moon shines bright on my old Kentucky home!"
Elnora thought of the Limberlost, of Philip, and her mother, and almost choke_ith the sobs that would arise in her throat. On the dock a woman of exquisit_eauty swept into the arms of Terence O'More.
"Oh, Freckles!" she cried. "You've been gone a month!"
"Four days, Angel, only four days by the clock," remonstrated Freckles. "Wher_re the children?"
"Asleep! Thank goodness! I'm worn to a thread. I never saw such inventive, active children. I can't keep track of them!"
"I have brought you help," said Freckles. "Here is the Limberlost girl in who_he Bird Woman is interested. Miss Comstock needs a rest before beginning he_chool work for next year, so she came to us."
"You dear thing! How good of you!" cried the Angel. "We shall be so happy t_ave you!"
In her room that night, in a beautiful cottage furnished with every luxury, Elnora lifted a tired face to the Angel.
"Of course, you understand there is something back of this?" she said. "I mus_ell you."
"Yes," agreed the Angel. "Tell me! If you get it out of your system, you wil_tand a better chance of sleeping."
Elnora stood brushing the copper-bright masses of her hair as she talked. Whe_he finished the Angel was almost hysterical.
"You insane creature!" she cried. "How crazy of you to leave him to her! _now both of them. I have met them often. She may be able to make good he_oast. But it is perfectly splendid of you! And, after all, really it is th_nly way. I can see that. I think it is what I should have done myself, o_ried to do. I don't know that I could have done it! When I think of walkin_way and leaving Freckles with a woman he once loved, to let her see if sh_an make him love her again, oh, it gives me a graveyard heart. No, I neve_ould have done it! You are bigger than I ever was. I should have turne_oward, sure."
"I am a coward," admitted Elnora. "I am soul-sick! I am afraid I shall lose m_enses before this is over. I didn't want to come! I wanted to stay, to g_traight into his arms, to bind myself with his ring, to love him with all m_eart. It wasn't my fault that I came. There was something inside that jus_ushed me. She is beautiful——"
"I quite agree with you!"
"You can imagine how fascinating she can be. She used no arts on me. He_urpose was to cower me. She found she could not do that, but she did a thin_hich helped her more: she proved that she was honest, perfectly sincere i_hat she thought. She believes that if she merely beckons to Philip, he wil_o to her. So I am giving her the opportunity to learn from him what he wil_o. She never will believe it from any one else. When she is satisfied, _hall be also."
"But, child! Suppose she wins him back!"
"That is the supposition with which I shall eat and sleep for the coming fe_eeks. Would one dare ask for a peep at the babies before going to bed?"
"Now, you are perfect!" announced the Angel. "I never should have liked yo_ll I can, if you had been content to go to sleep in this house without askin_o see the babies. Come this way. We named the first boy for his father, o_ourse, and the girl for Aunt Alice. The next boy is named for my father, an_he baby for the Bird Woman. After this we are going to branch out."
Elnora began to laugh.
"Oh, I suspect there will be quite a number of them," said the Angel serenely.
"I am told the more there are the less trouble they make. The big ones tak_are of the little ones. We want a large family. This is our start."
She entered a dark room and held aloft a candle. She went to the side of _mall white iron bed in which lay a boy of eight and another of three. The_ere perfectly formed, rosy children, the elder a replica of his mother, th_ther very like. Then they came to a cradle where a baby girl of almost tw_lept soundly, and made a picture.
"But just see here!" said the Angel. She threw the light on a sleeping girl o_ix. A mass of red curls swept the pillow. Line and feature the face was tha_f Freckles. Without asking, Elnora knew the colour and expression of th_losed eyes. The Angel handed Elnora the candle, and stooping, straightene_he child's body. She ran her fingers through the bright curls, and lightl_ouched the aristocratic little nose.
"The supply of freckles holds out in my family, you see!" she said. "Both o_he girls will have them, and the second boy a few."
She stood an instant longer, then bending, ran her hand caressingly down _osy bare leg, while she kissed the babyish red mouth. There had been som_eason for touching all of them, the kiss fell on the lips which were lik_reckles's.
To Elnora she said a tender good-night, whispering brave words o_ncouragement and making plans to fill the days to come. Then she went away.
An hour later there was a light tap on the girl's door.
"Come!" she called as she lay staring into the dark.
The Angel felt her way to the bedside, sat down and took Elnora's hands.
"I just had to come back to you," she said. "I have been telling Freckles, an_e is almost hurting himself with laughing. I didn't think it was funny, bu_e does. He thinks it's the funniest thing that ever happened. He says that t_un away from Mr. Ammon, when you had made him no promise at all, when h_asn't sure of you, won't send him home to her; it will set him hunting you!
He says if you had combined the wisdom of Solomon, Socrates, and all th_emainder of the wise men, you couldn't have chosen any course that would hav_ealed him to you so surely. He feels that now Mr. Ammon will perfectly hat_er for coming down there and driving you away. And you went to give her th_hance she wanted. Oh, Elnora! It is becoming funny! I see it, too!"
The Angel rocked on the bedside. Elnora faced the dark in silence.
"Forgive me," gulped the Angel. "I didn't mean to laugh. I didn't think it wa_unny, until all at once it came to me. Oh, dear! Elnora, it _is_ funny!
I've got to laugh!"
"Maybe it is," admitted Elnora "to others; but it isn't very funny to me. An_t won't be to Philip, or to mother."
That was very true. Mrs. Comstock had been slightly prepared for stringen_ction of some kind, by what Elnora had said. The mother instantly had guesse_here the girl would go, but nothing was said to Philip. That would have bee_o invalidate Elnora's test in the beginning, and Mrs. Comstock knew her chil_ell enough to know that she never would marry Philip unless she felt it righ_hat she should. The only way was to find out, and Elnora had gone to seek th_nformation. There was nothing to do but wait until she came back, and he_other was not in the least uneasy but that the girl would return brave an_elf-reliant, as always.
Philip Ammon hurried back to the Limberlost, strong in the hope that now h_ight take Elnora into his arms and receive her promise to become his wife.
His first shock of disappointment came when he found her gone. In talking wit_rs. Comstock he learned that Edith Carr had made an opportunity to speak wit_lnora alone. He hastened down the road to meet her, coming back alone, a_gitated man. Then search revealed the notes. His read:
I find that I am never going to be able to answer your question of thi_fternoon fairly to all of us, when you are with me. So I am going away a fe_eeks to think over matters alone. I shall not tell you, or even mother, wher_ am going, but I shall be safe, well cared for, and happy. Please go bac_ome and live among your friends, just as you always have done, and on o_efore the first of September, I will write you where I am, and what I hav_ecided. Please do not blame Edith Carr for this, and do not avoid her. I hop_ou will call on her and be friends. I think she is very sorry, and covet_our friendship at least. Until September, then, as ever,
Mrs. Comstock's note was much the same. Philip was ill with disappointment. I_he arbour he laid his head on the table, among the implements of Elnora'_oved work, and gulped down dry sobs he could not restrain. Mrs. Comstoc_ever had liked him so well. Her hand involuntarily crept toward his dar_ead, then she drew back. Elnora would not want her to do anything whatever t_nfluence him.
"What am I going to do to convince Edith Carr that I do not love her, an_lnora that I am hers?" he demanded.
"I guess you have to figure that out yourself," said Mrs. Comstock. "I'd b_lad to help you if I could, but it seems to be up to you."
Philip sat a long time in silence. "Well, I have decided!" he said abruptly.
"Are you perfectly sure Elnora had plenty of money and a safe place to go?"
"Absolutely!" answered Mrs. Comstock. "She has been taking care of hersel_ver since she was born, and she always has come out all right, so far; I'l_take all I'm worth on it, that she always will. I don't know where she is, but I'm not going to worry about her safety."
"I can't help worrying!" cried Philip. "I can think of fifty things that ma_appen to her when she thinks she is safe. This is distracting! First, I a_oing to run up to see my father. Then, I'll let you know what we hav_ecided. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Nothing!" said Mrs. Comstock.
But the desire to do something for him was so strong with her she scarcel_ould keep her lips closed or her hands quiet. She longed to tell him wha_dith Carr had said, how it had affected Elnora, and to comfort him as sh_elt she could. But loyalty to the girl held her. If Elnora truly felt tha_he could not decide until Edith Carr was convinced, then Edith Carr woul_ave to yield or triumph. It rested with Philip. So Mrs. Comstock kept silent, while Philip took the night limited, a bitterly disappointed man.
By noon the next day he was in his father's offices. They had a lon_onference, but did not arrive at much until the elder Ammon suggested sendin_or Polly. Anything that might have happened could be explained after Poll_ad told of the private conference between Edith and Elnora.
"Talk about lovely woman!" cried Philip Ammon. "One would think that afte_uch a dose as Edith gave me, she would be satisfied to let me go my way, bu_o! Not caring for me enough herself to save me from public disgrace, she mus_ow pursue me to keep any other woman from loving me. I call that too much! _m going to see her, and I want you to go with me, father."
"Very well," said Mr. Ammon, "I will go."
When Edith Carr came into her reception-room that afternoon, gowned fo_onquest, she expected only Philip, and him penitent. She came hurrying towar_im, smiling, radiant, ready to use every allurement she possessed, and pause_n dismay when she saw his cold face and his father. "Why, Phil!" she cried.
"When did you come home?"
"I am not at home," answered Philip. "I merely ran up to see my father o_usiness, and to inquire of you what it was you said to Miss Comstoc_esterday that caused her to disappear before I could return to th_imberlost."
"Miss Comstock disappear! Impossible!" cried Edith Carr. "Where could she go?"
"I thought perhaps you could answer that, since it was through you that sh_ent."
"Phil, I haven't the faintest idea where she is," said the girl gently.
"But you know perfectly why she went! Kindly tell me that."
"Let me see you alone, and I will."
"Here and now, or not at all."
"What did you say to the girl I love?"
Then Edith Carr stretched out her arms.
"Phil, I am the girl you love!" she cried. "All your life you have loved me.
Surely it cannot be all gone in a few weeks of misunderstanding. I was jealou_f her! I did not want you to leave me an instant that night for any othe_irl living. That was the moth I was representing. Every one knew it! I wante_ou to bring it to me. When you did not, I knew instantly it had been for he_hat you worked last summer, she who suggested my dress, she who had power t_ake you from me, when I wanted you most. The thought drove me mad, and I sai_nd did those insane things. Phil, I beg your pardon! I ask your forgiveness.
Yesterday she said that you had told her of me at once. She vowed both of yo_ad been true to me and Phil, I couldn't look into her eyes and not see tha_t was the truth. Oh, Phil, if you understood how I have suffered you woul_orgive me. Phil, I never knew how much I cared for you! I will d_nything—anything!"
"Then tell me what you said to Elnora yesterday that drove her, alone an_riendless, into the night, heaven knows where!"
"You have no thought for any one save her?"
"Yes," said Philip. "I have. Because I once loved you, and believed in you, m_eart aches for you. I will gladly forgive anything you ask. I will d_nything you want, except to resume our former relations. That is impossible.
It is hopeless and useless to ask it."
"You truly mean that!"
"Then find out from her what I said!"
"Come, father," said Philip, rising.
"You were going to show Miss Comstock's letter to Edith!" suggested Mr. Ammon.
"I have not the slightest interest in Miss Comstock's letter," said Edit_arr.
"You are not even interested in the fact that she says you are not responsibl_or her going, and that I am to call on you and be friends with you?"
"That is interesting, indeed!" sneered Miss Carr.
She took the letter, read and returned it.
"She has done what she could for my cause, it seems," she said coldly. "Ho_ery generous of her! Do you propose calling out Pinkertons and instituting _eneral search?"
"No," replied Philip. "I simply propose to go back to the Limberlost and liv_ith her mother, until Elnora becomes convinced that I am not courting you, and never shall be. Then, perhaps, she will come home to us. Good-bye. Goo_uck to you always!"