The White Shield
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An old-time friendly chat put them on an equal footing again, and Elliott grew confidential.
"Every thought of mine rightfully belongs to you, I suppose," he said one day.
"Every thought of mine is of you," she replied softly, and he watched the colour in her cheeks with a sensation akin to pleasure.
He thought about it in the night afterward. It was nice for a fellow to know that a girl like Belle thought of him often. If it had been a proper thing to do, he wouldn't have minded kissing her when she said it, for he had never seen her look so pretty.
The Yale man had gone back to college and Elliott settled down in business with his father. He and Belle were the best of friends, and he looked forward with increasing pleasure to the day which she had not yet named. He planned a European tour which he was sure would both surprise and please her. He did not intend to mention it until after the ceremony.
Surely no lover ever had a more reasonable and attractive path to travel. Belle was everything that could be desired. When his visits were infrequent, she did not seem to miss him, and – rarest quality in woman! – never asked him any questions as to the way in which he had spent the time away from her.
Tom felt like a pioneer who had emancipated his sex by applying the test of reason to every duty and pleasure in life.
The summer waned, and beside the open fire in the long cool evenings she seemed doubly attractive. In a friendly way, he took her hand in his, as they sat in front of the flaming brushwood, then started in surprise.
"What is it?" she asked.
"The queerest thing," Tom answered. "When I touched your hand just now, I felt a funny little quiver run up that arm to my elbow. Did you ever feel a thing like that?"
Belle forsook the path of absolute truth.
"No, how queer!"
"Isn't it?" He took her hand again, but the touch brought no answering thrill. "Must have been my imagination, or a chill," commented Tom.
Alone in her room, Miss Marshall laughed softly to herself.
"Imagination, or a chill! What a dear funny stupid thing a man is!"
Sunday evenings Tom invariably spent with Belle. When he called on the first evening of the following week, he was astonished to find that she had gone to church with the Yale man. Mrs. Marshall explained to him that it was the young man's farewell visit; his mother had been ill and he had been unexpectedly called home, thus giving him a few days with old friends.
"Must be very ill," said Tom ironically, under his breath, as he went back to his cheerless room.
There was a queer tightness somewhere in his chest which he had never felt before and it seemed to be connected in some way with the Yale man. He slept fitfully and dreamed of Belle in a little house, with an open fire in the parlour, where he would be a welcome guest and the alumni of the other colleges would be denied admittance. He was tempted to remonstrate with her, but had no reasonable ground for doing so.They would be married shortly and then the matter would end.
The next time he went to see her, the peculiar tightness appeared in his chest again, and he could hardly answer her cheerful greetings. He noted that she had acquired a Yale pin, which flaunted its ugly blue upon her breast. He trembled violently as he sat down and drops of perspiration stood out on his brow. She was alarmed and brought him a glass of water. As she stood over him, the womanly concern in her face touched him not a little, and he threw his arms around her and drew her down to him.
"Kiss me once, Belle," he pleaded hoarsely.
With a violent effort she freed herself.
"It's not hygienic," she explained, "and frequently causes disease."
Tom stared at her in open-mouthed wonder, and soon after took his departure.
Once inside his room, he sat down to close analysis of himself. He had been working too hard, and was temporarily unbalanced. She was quite right in saying that it caused disease; such a thing must not happen. His reason had been impaired by long hours in the office; otherwise he would never have thought of doing such a foolish, unreasonable thing.
In the morning he received a note from her. She had been summoned to the bedside of a sick sister, and would be away from home as long as she was needed.
The next month was a long one for Tom. He was surprised to find how much of his life could be filled by a woman. After they were married there would be no such separations. He wrote regularly and received in return such brief notes as her duties permitted her to write. Then, for a week, none came, and he went to her home to see what news had been received there. The servant admitted him, half smiling, and in white house gown, by the open fire he saw Belle. She had never seemed so sweet and womanly, and with a cry he could not repress, he caught her in his arms. She struggled, but in vain, and at last gave her lips willingly to his. In that minute Tom learned more than all his college course had taught him. Utterly unconscious of his own temerity, he kissed her again and again. The little white figure was silent in his arms, and bending low he whispered a word which no reasonable man would ever be caught using.
Her face shining with tears, Belle looked up.
"Tom," she said, "do you love me?"
"Love you!" he said slowly. "Why – I guess – I must."
She laughed happily and he drew her closer.
"Dear little girl," he said tenderly, "do you love me?"
The answer came muffled from his shoulder: "All the time, Tom!"
"All the time! You darling! What an infernal brute I have been!"
He evidently intended to kiss her again, for he tried to lift her chin from his shoulder. Providence has taught women a great deal about such things. Her eyes flashed with mischief as she struggled to release herself.
"You must let me go, Tom; this isn't reasonable at all!"
But his training with the Harvard crew had given him a strength which kept her there.
"Reasonable!" he repeated. "Reasonable be hanged!"
Elmiry Ann's Valentine
"Si," said Mrs. Safford, "didn't Elmiry Ann Rogers come in here to-day to buy a valentine?"
"Yep," replied the postmaster, without interest. "One of them twenty-five cent ones, with lace onto it."
"I thought so," grunted the wife of his bosom.
"How, now, Aureely? Why ain't she a right to buy a valentine if she wants one?"
"She's a fine one to be buyin' sech trash, when everybody in The Corners knows she ain't hardly got enough to keep soul and body together, let alone clothes and valentines. I knowed she'd done it, jest as well as if I'd see her do it, 'cause she aint' missed comin' in on the twelfth of February sence we come here, and that is nigh onto fourteen year."
"Well," said Silas, after a long silence, "what of it?"
"Si Safford! do you mean to tell me you've been postmaster for fourteen year an' ain't never noticed that Elmiry Ann Rogers gets a valentine every year?"
"No," replied Silas, turning to meet a customer, "I ain't never noticed it."
"Men do be the beatenest," exclaimed Aurelia under her breath.
"Evenin', Mr. Weeks."
"Evenin' Mis' Safford."
"Nope, looks like snow, but I reckon it's too cold."
For perhaps ten minutes the two men talked the dull aimless commonplaces of the country store. The single lamp with a reflector behind it, made all three faces unlovely and old. John Weeks was a tall strapping fellow, slightly stooped, and about fifty years old. His hair was grey at the temples, but his eyes had a kindly twinkle that bid defiance to time.
He bought some brown sugar and went out. One could not blame him for seeking other surroundings, for even at its best, the post-office and general store at The Corners was a gloomy place.
Two well-worn steps that creaked noisily were the links between it and the street. The door opened by an old-fashioned latch, worn with much handling, and inside, a motley smell greeted the inquiring nostril unwonted to the place.
The curious sickish odour was a compound of many ingredients blended into one by the all-powerful and all-pervading kerosene. The floor, moderately clean, was covered with sand and saw-dust, which was occasionally swept out and replaced by a fresh layer.
On the right, as you went in, was a small show-case filled with bright coloured candies, displayed in the original packages. Other boxes were piled in the window and still others on the shelf. Within a radius of twenty steps one could buy calico, muslin, ruled stationery, or groceries and kerosene, as he might choose.
Once a year, the commonplace merchandise gave way to "Christmas novelties," and during the first two weeks in February the candy show-case was filled with the pretty nonsensical bits of paper called valentines, with a pile of "comics" on top.
Every year on the twelfth of February, as Mrs. Safford had said, Elmiry Ann Rogers came in and bought a valentine. Every year on the fourteenth of February, as the postmaster's keen-eyed wife had noted, Elmiry Ann Rogers had received a valentine. It was no comic, either, such as one might send to an unprepossessing old maid of forty, but a gorgeous affair of lace paper and cupids, in an ornate wrapping, for more than once, Elmiry's trembling fingers had torn the envelop a bit, as if she could not wait until she reached home.
In many a country town, the buyer of the valentines would have been known as "Ol' Mis' Rogers," but The Corners, lazy, rather than tactful, still clung to the name the pretty girl had gone by.
There was little in Elmiry to recall the graceful figure that was wont to appear in pink muslin or red merino at church and prayer meeting, for the soft curves had become angles, the erect shoulders were bent, and the laughing eyes were now filled with a dumb pathetic sadness. Elmiry's hair had once fallen in soft curls about her face, but now it was twisted into a hard little knot at the back of her head. The white dimpled hands were dark and scrawny now, but people still spoke of her as "Elmiry Ann."
The morning of the thirteenth dawned cloudy and cold. The postmaster went out of town on business, and his wife had her hands full. She moved briskly from one part of the store to the other, making change, rectifying mistakes, and attending to the mail.
At noon a crowd of children came in after "comics" and John Weeks stood by, watching aimlessly.
"You want any valentines, Mr. Weeks?" asked Mrs. Safford.
"Reckon not, I've been growed up too long for that."
"Sho, now! You ain't much older 'n Elmiry Ann Rogers, an' she buys one every year. It's a nice one too – twenty-five cents."
"I ain't never sent but one," said Mr. Weeks, after a silence.
"That so? Well, some folks buys 'em right along. Elmiry Ann Rogers gets one every year jest as regler as a tea party."
"Who'd you advise me to send one to?"
"Don't make no difference to us, so we sells 'em," laughed Mrs. Safford. "Stock's runnin' down now, but if there's any lef they can be kep' over. We've had one now for goin' on five year. It's a fifty cent one, an it's pretty too. Elmiry's looked at it every year but I guess it's too expensive."
"Lemme see it."
It was the same size as the others but it had more lace paper on it and more cupids. Weeks was evidently pleased with it and paid the fifty cents without a murmur.
"Makes me feel sorter silly to be buyin' one o' them things," he said awkwardly, "but I'm allers glad to do a favour for a friend an' I'll take it off your hands."
"Much obliged," returned Mrs. Safford. "Who you lowin' to send it to?"
Weeks considered carefully. "I've got a little nephew over to Taylorville," he said, "and I reckon he'd be right pleased with it." Another avalanche of children descended upon the valentine counter and in the confusion he escaped.
Busy as she was, Mrs. Safford found time to meditate upon Elmiry and her romance. "They do say that John Weeks used to set up some with Elmiry," she thought, "and then it was broke off, but there ain't either of 'em married. I sh'd think he'd want a woman to do for him, and poor Elmiry – her little house is most eat up by the mortgage. The squire was a-sayin' the other day that he thought she'd soon be on the town 'cause she ain't paid the intrust lately. An her a-buyin' valentines! La sakes! Well, it takes all kinds of people to make up a world!"
Early in the afternoon she sorted the mail, as usual, but there was nothing for Elmiry. A strange fact of the case was that the valentine had always come from The Corners. Mrs. Safford began to hope Elmiry would not be disappointed, then the latch clicked, and she came in.
"I want half a pound of dried beef, Mis' Safford," Elmiry said, "an' a quarter of a pound of rice, an' a jug of merlasses, an' a spool of black thread, number sixty."
"Would you mind writin' down your order, Mis' Rogers? I'll send Si over with it when he comes, 'cause I've got to get this mail off in a few minutes an' I ain't got time."
Elmiry seemed disappointed, but wrote her needs on a piece of wrapping paper, using the short blunt pencil which was suspended by a piece of twine from the show-case. Her writing was cramped, old-fashioned, and as distinctive as it was odd.
When Mrs. Safford had time to look at the order, she became greatly excited. "If that ain't the beatenest?" she said to herself. "Who'd have thought it? 'Course, maybe it ain't, but I'm goin' to make sure!"
Late in the afternoon Elmiry came in again, and as before, she was the only customer. "I jest thought I'd take my things, Mis' Safford," she said by way of explanation, "'cause I want to use some merlasses right away and 't ain't no need to trouble Mr. Safford, if you've got time to do 'em up."
"I've got 'em all ready, Elmiry." So Miss Rogers arranged the bundles under her shawl and Mrs. Safford caught sight of something white, held tightly in the dark scrawny hand.
"'T want thread, nor rice," she thought, as Elmiry went out, "and I know 't want her handkerchief. I reckon 'twas her valentine she was lowin' to send away, and didn't, 'cause she thought I'd look. She ain't goin' to fool me though."
Dusk brought the storm which had threatened for two days, and a bitter north wind came with it. In an hour the world was white, and belated foot-falls were muffled by the snow. At nine the store closed, and at half-past nine, Elmiry Ann Rogers wrapped her threadbare shawl around her and started down the street to the post-office.
It was a difficult journey, for the snow was three inches deep and was still coming down, but Elmiry knew the way so well that she could have gone with her eyes shut, if necessary.
She was stiff with the cold when she got there, and was fumbling with the opening in the door marked "mail" when a deep masculine voice at her elbow startled her into an impulsive little scream.
"Why, Miss Rogers," it said, "what are you doin' here this time o' night?"
"My goodness, Mr. Weeks, how you scairt me!" she answered trembling.
"You shouldn't be out a night like this," he continued, "it ain't fittin'."
"I – I jest come out to mail a letter, – an important letter," said Elmiry weakly.
"Why that's funny – so did I! Strange that we should meet, ain't it? And now, Miss Rogers, I'm goin' to take you home."
"Oh, you mustn't, Mr. Weeks," cried Elmiry in a panic, "I'd feel wicked to take you out of your way a night like this, and 't'aint but a few steps anyway."
"Sakes alive! Elmiry, how you talk! I'm a-goin' to take you home and we might as well start. Come."
He slipped her arm through his and turned down the street.
Elmiry felt a burning blush on her cold cheeks, for it had been years, more than she cared to remember, since any one had taken her home.
As they went on, Mr. Weeks did the talking and Elmiry endeavoured to collect her scattered senses. There was something strangely sweet in the feeling that she had a protector, and she wondered dimly how she had ever had the courage to take the trip alone. When they reached her door, she turned to bid him good-night, but he seemed to take no notice of it.
"I guess I'll go in an' set a spell," he remarked. "I'm quite chill." Elmiry had closed the door of the kitchen and turned up the light which was burning dimly before she remembered she had no fire. Mr. Weeks opened the stove door and found the interior dark and cold. Then he looked behind the stove, but there was neither wood nor coal and the floor was spotlessly clean.
"Why, Elmiry," he said, "I'll go right out and get you an armful of wood. It's been stormin' so you've got out. I'll bring in a lot of it."
"No, no," she cried. "Please don't! It's too late for a fire to-night and in the mornin' it'll be clear! Don't go!"
In her tone there was something more than polite anxiety to save him the effort, and he changed the subject. They talked commonplaces until he felt the cold in spite of his warm clothing. She still wore her shawl and looked pitifully thin and weak.
"Ain't you cold?" he asked.
"No," replied Elmiry with great dignity. "I'm warm-blooded an' most people keep their houses too hot. It ain't healthy."
Mr. Weeks agreed and rose to go. She did not ask him to come again, and he was half-way down the street when he began to wonder about the fire. The light was out, so he went back, very slowly approached the wood-shed by a roundabout way, entered stealthily and struck a match, shading the light with his hand.
On the floor, in the corner, was a very small pile of kindlings and the coal-bin was swept clean, no other fuel being in sight.
"It's jest as I thought," he said to himself. "The poor little soul!"
St. Valentine's morning was clear and bright, but enough snow had fallen during the night to obliterate the telltale tracks around the wood-shed. Mrs. Safford was up betimes, eagerly anticipating her husband's peep into the soap box which held chance letters posted after the store had closed. There were two valentines there, both addressed to "Miss Elmiry Ann Rogers, The Corners."
"Sakes alive!" said Mrs. Safford. "Si! Elmiry Ann Rogers has been a-sending herself valentines every year, regler. I wish 't I knew who t' other was from – this is the first time she's had two."
"How'd you know anything about it?"
"Why one on 'em is in the same hand that was on the order she wrote, but t' other looks like a man's hand."
"Aureely," said the postmaster, "you keep still about valentines and everything else you see in the mail, or I'll lose the post-office, and you'll go to jail! The United States government don't stand no foolin'!"
Awed by her husband's stern manner, Mrs. Safford decided to keep still, but she watched Elmiry Ann closely when Silas gave her the valentines. The thin sad face lighted up with pleased surprise, but Elmiry did not stop. She clutched her treasures tightly and hurried out looking younger than she had for years.
When John Weeks came in during the afternoon the Saffords were putting away the valentines. "This fool business is over for another year, John," said the postmaster. "We've sold one we've had for more'n five years. What you steppin' on my feet for, Aureely? Ain't you got room enough in the store to walk?"
"'Scuse me Si, there's the squire comin' in."
"Mornin', Si. Has your clocks stopped, so's you don't know it's afternoon? How's biz?"
"Oh, so so. What's new?"
"Nothin', only the selectmen held a meetin' yesterday an' Elmiry Rogers is a-goin' to the poorhouse. She's back in her intrust, and ain't got no prospects, and the Doctor has got to foreclose. They wanted I s'd tell her, but someways, I don't like the idea. She'll be kep' warm and she'll be better off, and she'll have plenty of comp'ny, but I knowed her when she went to school, an' I knowed her mother too. For the sake of auld lang syne I don't want to hurt her."
"Sho now, ain't that too bad?" said both the Saffords together.
Nobody knew just when Mr. Weeks left the store, and Elmiry Ann was startled when she opened the door in response to his vigorous rap. She had not been at home long, and the colour still burned in her cheeks. The valentines lay on the table, presenting a strange contrast to their bleak and commonplace surroundings.
"Why, how do you do?" she exclaimed with a queer little note in her voice. "Will you come in?"
"Yes, I'll come in," he said decisively. He shut the door with a bang and took the trembling frightened woman into his arms.
"Elmiry! You poor little soul! I've wanted you 'most twenty years, an' I ain't never had courage to say it 'til now. We've waited too long, an' I want you to come and be my valentine – will you, dear?"
"Why, Mr. Weeks," she cried in astonishment, "what's took you all of a sudden?"
"It's sense, I reckon, Elmiry, an' it's been a long time comin'. I was huffed 'cause you never made no answer to the valentine I sent you, an' I thought you didn't want me, so I just stayed away."
"What valentine?" Elmiry's eyes were very big and fearful.
"Don't you remember that valentine I sent you? – Let's see, it's so long ago – I've most forgot what it was. It said:
"Yes," said Elmiry slowly, "I remember." She went to the Family Bible which lay on the marble-topped table in the front room and took it out. It was worn and faded and there were spots on it which looked like tears. "Did you mean that," she asked with difficulty, "for a-a – "
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