Although a Holton had brought scandal upon the house of Montgomery by elopin_ith one of its duly married daughters, or perhaps because of tha_isagreeable circumstance, Mrs. Hastings, Mrs. Fosdick, and Mrs. Waterman wer_onstantly exercised over the affairs of the Holtons. The Holtons prospered, as witness the fashion in which William (the wicked Jack's brother) had buil_p the First National Bank after the dissolution of the old Montgomery & Holton partnership. And there was Samuel, who had varied his politica_ctivities by organizing companies to raise vanilla beans or sarsaparilla, o_o dig silver in Mexico—a man of affairs, unquestionably, who had outgrow_ontgomery and moved to the state capital where he died. Even Samuel's paltr_chievements were touched with a certain magnificence in the eyes of thes_adies; Samuel had escaped from Montgomery and this was a consummation tha_ad long been the burden of their prayers. The very existence of the Firs_ational Bank was offensive to the sisters of Amzi Montgomery. They had wante_mzi to "nationalize" his bank when the break occurred and it had been "jus_ike" their stubborn brother to continue in the old rut.
Mrs. William Holton lived in a modern house that was superior to anything th_ontgomerys could boast. It had two bathrooms, a music-room, and electri_ights. In Montgomery one bathroom had long been a summit-crownin_chievement, to which the fortunate possessor might point with pride; and a_or dedicating a room to music, and planting in it a grand piano flanked by _ust of Mozart, and shedding upon it a dim opalescent glow from conceale_ights—no one in the community had ever before scaled such heights o_randeur.
For half a dozen years after their sister's escapade the Montgomery sister_ad not spoken to a Holton; but in such communities as theirs the "cutting" o_ersons with whom one has been brought up is attended with embarrassments.
William Holton had married, a little late, a Memphis woman he had met on _rip to Mexico to inspect the plantations in which he and his brother Samue_ere interested. She was "a Southern woman," with a charming accent, as ever_ne admitted. The accent was greatly admired. Several young girls sought t_often the vowels of their native Hoosier speech in conformity with the model_ntroduced by Mrs. Holton. The coming of this lady, the zest with which sh_ntered into the social life of the town, the vacillations of certain ol_riends of the Montgomerys who had taken sides against the Holtons after th_irkwood incident, had given the three sisters an excuse for abandoning th_eud in so far at least as it applied to William Holton. In any view of th_ase, no matter how base the Holtons might be, there was no reason why th_amily sins should be visited upon the lady with the aforesaid accent, whos_aste in dress was unassailable and who poured tea with such an air.
Amzi read his newspaper in the little back room of the bank on a Novembe_fternoon and awaited the coming of his sisters. The necessity for an_usiness discussions between them had steadily diminished. Their father'_state had long ago been distributed, and Amzi had not troubled himself as t_he subsequent fate of the money he had paid to his sisters. They were al_lessed with husbands, and if these gentlemen did not safeguard their wives'
property it was no affair of his. There had been about half a million dollars, which meant in round figures a hundred thousand dollars apiece, and this i_ontgomery is a great deal of money.
When his sisters arrived, Amzi rose with the nice courtesy that lay in him an_laced chairs for them about the table. Then panting from his exertion h_ulled a cigar from his waistcoat and dry-smoked it. They were unwontedl_rave, suggesting the gloom of a committee appointed to perfect funera_rrangements for a poor relation.
"You have talked to Phil about the party, I suppose," said Mrs. Waterman.
"I have: I most certainly have, Josie," replied Amzi, sighing heavily.
"And she's going to do what we want?"
Amzi tilted his head to one side reflectively, and took the cigar from hi_outh.
"She's going to stand for the party, if that's what you mean; but as to doin_hat you want on general principles, I'm not so dead sure."
"It was your duty, Amzi, to go into the matter thoroughly—to lay down the la_o her," observed Mrs. Fosdick.
"All right," nodded Amzi. "In the words of the poet, I done it. But Phi_oesn't need lectures."
"Doesn't need them?" sniffed Mrs. Fosdick. "That poor child couldn't have _ecture too many. She always pulls the wool over your eyes. It's right an_roper for us to know just what she said when you told her she had to sto_unning round so much and act like a respectable well-brought-up girl."
"You're a lot of silly geese about Phil—all of you," declared Amzi, bringin_is gaze to bear upon them _seriatim_. "Phil is far from being a fool, an_here's a heart in her as big as the court-house. We don't appreciate her; we're always nagging her and trying to reform her."
The plural was pure chivalry. It was not Amzi who nagged Phil. The aunts, perfectly aware of this, and ready usually to challenge any intimation tha_heir attitude toward Phil was not dictated by equity and wisdom, were silent.
Their failure to respond with their customary defense aroused his suspicions.
They had been to a tea somewhere and were in their new fall togs. Thei_ealous attempts to live up to what were to him the absurdest, the mos_reposterous ideals, struck him just now as pathetic; but he was fond of hi_isters. If the course of their lives was inexplicable and their ambition_idiculous and futile, his good humor never failed in his intercourse wit_hem. But they had not disclosed their hand on this occasion—he was confiden_f this—and he warily fortified himself to meet whatever assault thei_trategy had planned. The three women glanced at one another covertly: Kat_nd Fanny seemed to be deferring to their older sister. It was wit_nmistakable diffidence and after a minute scrutiny of her cardcase that Mrs.
"Amzi, this is an important time in Phil's life, and there are some things w_ught to counsel each other about. We all take it for granted that you kno_here Lois is."
Amzi crossed his fat legs and shrugged his fat shoulders. He was not in th_east pleased by the direction of the inquiry.
"We feel we are entitled to know all you know about her," added Mrs. Fosdick.
"You should remember," said Mrs. Hastings, "that she's our sister as well a_ours."
Amzi's jaws tightened and he inspected the end of his cigar. This sudde_anifestation of sisterly interest in Lois was not without its amusing side.
They had long ago spurned their sister with bitterness, and his speculation_s to the real object of their visit had not touched the remote horizon_gainst which Lois was vaguely limned.
"I don't see," he observed deliberately, "that Lois has anything whatever t_o with Phil or any of the rest of us."
"Of course not, Amzi. That's exactly the point. We only want to be sure she'_ long way off; we're entitled to know that. And we've heard—"
Mrs. Hastings laid upon _heard_ that fine, insinuating inflection that is _art of the grammar of gossip. His sisters had heard something, and while h_iscounted its value automatically, as was his way, he was not withou_uriosity as to its nature. They saw that he was interested.
"The Walters have just got back from a Western trip, and they heard in Seattl_hat Lois has left Holton. He had been doing badly—drinking, and all that."
"It was bound to come, of course," said Mrs. Waterman. "You can't tell me tha_eople who do a thing like that can ever be happy."
Her tone did not please Amzi. It was clear that he found the whole subjec_isagreeable. He was immensely annoyed that they had come to him to discus_ois after years of silence. It was as though a great rock planted in th_venue of her exit had succumbed to the tooth of Time and its exfoliation_ere falling ominously about him.
"I thought it was understood long ago that we had dropped Lois. If she an_olton got tired of each other, it's their business. I don't imagine you wan_e to send for her to come home."
"Amzi!" they gasped.
It seemed that this shuddering exclamation expressed a horror that shook thei_ery souls. It was incredible that so dark a thought should have crossed th_ind of a man commonly looked upon as sane.
"That would be the limit," cried Mrs. Hastings. "Don't even mention such _hing—it's too horrible to joke about."
"I wasn't joking. If she's gone to smash with Holton, I thought maybe yo_anted us to bring the prodigal home, and give her veal loaf for Sunda_vening tea. By the way, Kate, don't ever turn me loose on any of your vea_oaf again. The last I had at your house gave me indigestion; it might hav_ed to apoplexy and killed me."
The fierceness of his frowning caused his scalp to wrinkle clear back to hi_ringe of hair. His sisters were vexed by his attempt to relieve th_iscussion with humor. It was necessary to sober him, and Mrs. Hasting_hought she could effect the sobering of Amzi.
"Minnie Walters says they have lost their money; the judge saw Jack Holton, but you know how the judge is; he wouldn't ever speak of it to a soul."
"Minnie would," said Amzi dryly.
"Minnie only mentioned it in the kindest way," said Mrs. Waterman, coloring.
"You know Minnie doesn't gossip; but as an old friend of our family sh_hought we ought to know. I think it was kind of her to tell us."
"Well, it doesn't seem to have made you girls much happier. What on earth ar_ou going to do; what do you want me to do?" he demanded, blowing out hi_heeks and glaring.
"We don't want you to do anything, Amzi," said Mrs. Hastings, with tha_weetness with which women of little discernment attempt to blunt the wrath o_an.
It was important to keep Phil in the picture: with Phil dancing before the_mzi could be held in subjection. Mrs. Waterman hastened to mention Phil an_he responsibility they all felt about her, to justify their curiosity as t_hil's mother. Amzi blew his nose and readjusted his spectacles. Mrs. Waterma_dvanced the battle-line boldly.
"We assume that you have always kept in touch with poor Lois and that yo_till hear from her. And we feel that the time has come for you to treat u_ore frankly about her. It's for Phil's sake, you know, Amzi."
Amzi could not see how any of the later transactions in the life of Phil'_other were of the slightest importance to Phil. He shook his head impatientl_nd shrugged his shoulders.
"Lois," he blurted, "is in Dresden."
"Then she _has_ left him!" cried Mrs. Fosdick, with a note of triumph tha_rumpeted the complete vindication of Mrs. Waterman's averments.
"I tell you I don't know anything about Holton," replied Amzi, who had, i_trictest truth, told them nothing of the kind. He experienced the instan_egret suffered by secretive persons who watch a long-guarded fact slip awa_eyond reclamation; but repentance could avail nothing, so he added,—
"Yes; she's abroad. She's been over there for some time."
"Of course, he's run through her money; that was to be expected!" exclaime_rs. Fosdick in a tone that implied a deep resentment of the fate that ha_obbed the erring Lois of her money.
"If he did she never told me so," Amzi answered. "But Lois was never what yo_ight call a squealer; if he robbed her you can be pretty dead sure sh_ouldn't sob about it on the street corners. That wouldn't be a bit like th_ois I remember. Lois wasn't the woman to go scampering off after the Devi_nd then get scared and burst out crying when she found her shoes beginning t_et hot."
After all these years Amzi had spoken, and his sisters did not like his tone.
Their brother, a gentleman the correctness of whose life had never bee_uestioned, was referring to the conduct of the sister who had disgraced he_amily in outrageous and sinful terms. The Prince of Darkness and the fervi_avements of his kingdom were not to be brought into conversation with an_uch lightness, as though the going to the Devil were not, after all, s_orrible—not something to be whispered with terror in the dark confessional o_heir souls. One might have imagined that Lois's very sins had endeared her t_his phlegmatic older brother! There was not only this gloomy reflection, bu_is admissions had opened long vistas to their imaginations. He probably kne_ore than he meant to disclose, and this made it necessary to continue thei_umping with the greatest discretion.
"It would be hard if she came back on you for help—after everything that'_appened; but of course that would be your affair, Amzi," said Mrs. Hasting_eadingly.
This, in their eagerness, seemed an admission. The interview was provin_ruitful beyond their fondest hopes. He had doubtless been in Lois's fulles_onfidence from the first; and darkest of all, it was wholly likely, now tha_he had broken with Holton, that Amzi was supplying her with the means o_ubsistence in the capitals of Europe. Around this last thought they rallied.
"Of course, if Lois should really be in need, Amzi," said Mrs. Waterman, "i_ould be the duty of all of us to help her; that would only be right. But eve_f it comes to that we should have to consider Phil, too. When you think o_verything, our responsibility is much greater for Phil than for Lois. Phil i_ere; her life's before her; she's one _of_ us, you know, Amzi."
"Right, Josie; you are mighty right. What you mean is that if it came to _uestion of Lois's starving in Europe and Phil's starving on our doorsteps, we'd help Phil first because she's right here under our noses. But I don'_nderstand that Lois is starving; nor is Phil for that matter. Phil's al_ight."
The thought that he was sending money to Lois was disagreeable; that he shoul_e doing so when Phil's needs cried so stridently aroused the dires_pprehensions. They had all received from Amzi their exact proportion of thei_ather's estate; even Waterman had never been able to find a flaw in th_djustment. Through Waterman they had learned that Lois's proper receipt wa_n file; they knew exactly the date on which it had been placed of record i_he county clerk's office. They had looked upon this as the final closing o_ll the doors that shut this sister out of their calculations. They, or thei_hildren, were potential beneficiaries in Amzi's property if he ultimatel_ied a bachelor. And there was no telling when his asthma might b_upplemented by a fatal pneumonia. This was never to be whispered in so far a_he chances of their own offspring were concerned; but of Phil and th_ropriety of her expectations they might speak with entire candor.
"While we are talking of these matters," observed Mrs. Hastings, "we may a_ell face one or two things that have troubled us all a good deal. You know a_ell as we do that poor Tom has gradually been playing out; it's pitiful th_ay he has been letting his business go. Every one knows that he has ability, but he's been living more and more up in the air. He owns the block over ther_nd the rent he gets from that is about all he has. And I shouldn't be at al_urprised if the block had been mortgaged."
"I've heard," said Mrs. Waterman, examining a button on her white glove, "tha_e has borrowed money on it."
They looked guardedly at Amzi. Mrs. Waterman's husband, who kept an eye on th_ounty records, had, at his wife's behest, assured himself frequently tha_irkwood's block in Main Street was unencumbered. Kirkwood's former home, th_ecaying monument to his domestic tragedy, and the only other thing he owned, was free also. In this process of "smoking out" their brother it would hav_elped if they could have pointed to the menace of her father's encumbere_roperty to Phil; but they had already learned more than they had expected i_stablishing beyond per-adventure the fact that Lois and Amzi maintaine_ommunication, and that in all likelihood he was providing for her in he_xile. It was high time they scanned the top shelves of the closet occupied b_he dancing family skeleton!
"While we're about it we may as well face the possibility that Tom may marr_gain," remarked Mrs. Fosdick suddenly.
Amzi drew his hand across his pink dome.
"Nothing to hinder him that I know of," he replied.
"I don't know of anything that would wake him up unless it would be that. Th_ight sort of woman could do a lot for a man like Tom, with all that he ha_uffered." This from Mrs. Waterman, who seemed deeply moved by the thought o_irkwood's sufferings.
"But Phil—I can't imagine Phil with a stepmother. We never could allow that; we should have to take her away from him," declared Mrs. Fosdick.
Amzi rested his elbow on the table, and breathed hard for a minute. He too_he unlighted cigar from his mouth and waved it at them.
"What's got into you girls anyhow! You're borrowing trouble in all the bank_n the universe—a little above your line of credit. You seem terribly anxiou_bout Lois all of a sudden. It just happens that I know she ain't hungry, an_hat she's over there living like a respectable woman. Lois isn't like th_est of us; Lois is different! There's more electricity in Lois than the res_f us have; you know it as well as I do. Now just to satisfy your curiosit_'ll tell you that I saw Lois—"
"You saw her!" they chorused.
"I saw her in Chicago about two months ago. She was on her way to Europe then; I had dinner with her and put her on the train for New York, and she saile_he day she got there; so now, if you're scared to death for fear she's goin_o turn up here in town, you can put it clean out of your minds."
They sighed their relief. He was not given to long speeches and the effort o_is recent deliverances caused him to cough, and the coughing brought hi_oice finally to a high wheeze. He had not quite finished yet, however.
"Now, as for Tom Kirkwood marrying," he went on, "let him marry. It's none o_ur business, is it? He married into our family and got the worst of it. I_asn't a particularly cheerful business, the way it came out. If he's foo_nough to try it again, it's his trouble not ours; and you can't tell but h_ight make a go of it next time."
"We have no idea of trying to hinder him," said Mrs. Waterman with dignity.
"As you say, it's Tom's trouble. And of course we could manage so Phi_ouldn't suffer, no matter what he did."
"Phil suffer! Thunder! What are you always talking about Phil for; I tell yo_hil's all right! Phil's got more gumption than all the rest of us pu_ogether. Phil's an honor to the family; she's the best girl in this town an_he best girl in the whole state of Indiana, or the United States, for tha_atter. If you have visions of seeing Phil chased over the back lot by an_tepmother, you have another guess coming. Thunder!"
He drew out a white silk handkerchief and blew his nose. The sisters saw wit_egret that there was no recurring to the attractive subject of that intervie_n Chicago, though their minds were beset with a thousand questions the_ished to ask him about it. They realized that to do so would be a blunder.
They had stumbled upon a gold mine and were obliged to leave its rich hoar_ntouched. They returned to Phil, who, as a topic, offered safer ground tha_er mother.
"Phil's party," said Mrs. Hastings briskly, "ought to be in keeping with th_amily dignity. We thought it a lot better for you to have it in your hous_han for us—our own houses are small." (This with resignation.) "And i_oesn't seem quite nice for _us_ to have it in the Masonic Hall, though som_f the nicest people are doing that. To bring Phil out in her grandfather'_ouse speaks for the whole family. And it's dear of you to consent to it. W_ll appreciate that, Amzi."
"Of course it's the place for it!" affirmed Amzi impatiently. "I'll give tha_arty and you can get whatever Phil needs and do it right; you understand? An_hen I want you to give me all the bills. Now what else do you want?"
"We feel," began Mrs. Fosdick, "that the invitations, which will go out i_our name, should take in everybody we want Phil to know."
Amzi grinned guardedly.
"That's pretty good, Fanny. Do you suppose there's a man, woman, baby, o_ellow dog in this town that Phil doesn't know? I doubt it. But go on."
"We don't mean that way, Amzi," said Mrs. Waterman patiently. "We mean—"
"Thunder! Go on!"
"We mean that the list should be representative—that old differences should b_ut aside."
The wrinkles on Amzi's pink pate scampered back to find refuge in his absur_ringe of pale-gold hair. Mrs. Waterman advanced her pickets hurriedly.
"You know we've had to recognize the Holtons of late, disagreeable though i_as been. William isn't like Jack—you know that; and when he brought his wif_ere, a perfect stranger, it didn't seem fair to ignore her."
"The fact is," Mrs. Fosdick interpolated, "we simply couldn't, Amzi. Thi_own's too small to carry on a feud comfortably. We all stopped speaking t_he Holtons after poor Lois left, but the rest of them couldn't help what Jac_id; and, of course, Lois—"
"You want to ask Mr. and Mrs. William to Phil's party?"
Mrs. Fosdick, fearing from the fierceness with which he reduced the matter t_ords, that he was about to veto the suggestion, hastened to strengthen thei_ase.
"For business reasons, Amzi, we feel that we ought to bury the hatchet. Pau_as to meet William Holton constantly. No matter what we think, William _is_eally one of the wide-awake business men of the town, and in all sorts o_hings; and Paul has to keep him on the executive committee of the Commercia_lub—the president of the First National Bank can't be overlooked, though yo_an't ever doubt Paul's devotion to all our interests."
"And," Mrs. Waterman added, "Mr. Holton retained Alec in a case last winter."
"Yep," observed Amzi, "he did. It was that suit about opening up Chapel Stree_nd I was one of the defendants." And then he added, with calculated softness, as though recalling a pleasant memory, "Alec lost the suit."
The mention of the Chapel Street Extension had been an unfortunate slip o_rs. Waterman's part; but Amzi was generous.
"Bill Holton is undoubtedly a leading citizen," he observed, looking at th_eiling and rubbing his nose absently. The irony of this, if he intended any, was well hidden. William Holton, president of the First National Bank, was _usiness rival, and Amzi never abused his competitors. Having satisfied hi_uriosity as to the ceiling, he announced his complete acquiescence in th_dea of inviting the William Holtons. "No objection whatever," he declared,
"to asking Bill and his wife. Is that all of 'em you want?"
"Well, there are Ethel and Charlie. They've just closed their house here an_ean to live in Indianapolis, but of course they still belong here. Charlie i_oing very well, they say—quite a brilliant young man; and Ethel is very swee_nd well-bred. She went to Miss Waring's school in Indianapolis and knows som_f the nicest young people in the city. I think it would be nice to ask them; it always looks well to have some out-of-town guests."
"That Sam's children you're talking about? What's the matter with the othe_oy?"
"Fred? I think the less we say about him the better. He's been down in Mexic_n one of Sam's schemes and I guess he didn't do well. He's on the old far_ext your place. I guess Ethel and Charlie can represent that branch of th_amily. If you think—" began Mrs. Fosdick, anxious that Amzi should be full_atisfied.
"Thunder! I don't think. You fix it up to suit yourselves."
They began to adjust their wraps, fairly well satisfied with the results o_he visit. Amzi eyed their autumnal splendors with the mild wonder a woman'_aiment always aroused in him.
"Tom marry again, you say," he observed pensively. "What's put that idea i_our head?"
"Why, you know as well as we do, Amzi, that he and Rose Bartlett are ver_ympathetic," exclaimed Mrs. Hastings, veiling a sharp glance at him. Th_hree women, feigning inattention, were alert for their brother's reply. I_ame promptly.
"Rose is a fine woman," he said with cordial emphasis. "A fine woman. And," h_mmediately added, "so's Nan!"
Then he thrust his hands into his coat pockets and filled his cheeks an_lared.
They were grieved by the mention of Nan. The bluff heartiness with which h_ad expressed his admiration for Rose had been gratifying and satisfying; bu_y speaking with equal fervor of Nan he had sent them adrift again.