- CHAPTER XXIII MOTHER
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PETER ROLLS, as it oddly happened, had run up to New York that hot night in order to see a girl do a "turn" at a vaudeville theatre—an English girl about whom he had read a newspaper paragraph, and who might, he thought, be Winifred Child. The girl's stage name was Winifred Cheylesmore. The newspaper described her as "tall, dark, and taking, with a voice like Devonshire cream."
She was a new girl, of whom nobody had heard, and Peter had been thrilled and impatient. Her "singing stunt" was to be heard at ten o'clock, and Peter had dined at his club, meaning to be early in his seat at the theatre. But a man he knew, sitting at a table near, was a budding journalist, an earnest amateur photographer. He began passing samples of his skill to Peter Rolls, calling out rather loudly the names of ladies snapshotted. Among them was Winifred Cheylesmore, whom he had interviewed. She was no more like Winifred Child than Marie Tempest is like Ethel Barrymore. Consequently Peter gave his ticket away and sat longer over his dinner than he had meant.
If he had started out even five minutes earlier he would have missed Jim Logan and the adventure in the shut-up house. He would not have known that there was a hope—indeed, almost a certainty—of finding the lost dryad in one of New York's great department-stores.
He was excited, and would have liked to spend half | | 257 the night walking off his superfluous energy in the streets or the park, where that lying beast said he had made Miss Child's acquaintance. Peter would have felt that he was marching to meet the dawn and that the day he longed for would come to him sooner if he walked towards the horizon. But Father was in town that night—presumedly at his club—and Peter did not like to leave Mother alone. She had exacted no promise—she never did exact promises, for that was not her way. Peter had said, however, that he would motor home after the theatre, and though Mother mustn't sit up, she would know that he was in the house.
He determined to keep to this plan, which, of course, would not prevent his returning to New York early enough next day for the first opening of the first shop. He wished there were not so many shops. Unless luck were with him on his search, he might not reach the dryad for days.
In spite of all that had happened, midnight was not long past when Peter tip-toed softly through the quiet house at home and opened the door of his own den. He had expected to find the room in darkness, but to his surprise the green-shaded reading-lamp on the book-scattered mahogany table was alight, and there in the horsehair-covered rocking-chair sat Mother with her inevitable work. Close by, the window was wide open and the night breeze from over the Sound was rhythmically waving the white dimity curtains.
The sweetness of home-coming swept over Peter with the perfume of wall-flowers which blew in on the wind—a sweetness almost as poignant as that of fresias. Half unconsciously he had been wishing to see his mother—perhaps not even to speak, but just to see her placid face in its kind womanliness. It was almost as if his wish had been whispered to her telepathically and she had answered it. She made a charming picture, | | 258 too, he thought, in the shadowy room where the pale, moving curtains in the dimness were like spirits bringing peace, and all the light focussed upon the white-haired, white-gowned woman in the high black chair seemed to radiate from her whiteness.
Mother looked up, pleased but not surprised, as the opening door framed her son.
"Howdy do, deary!" She smiled at him. "I thought you'd be coming along about this time."
Peter threw his hat and coat at the whale, whose large, shining surface hospitably received them. Mrs. Rolls's small, plump feet in cheap Japanese slippers rested upon a "hassock," on whose covering reposed (in worsted) a black spaniel with blue high lights. This animal she had herself created before the birth of Peter or Ena, but it was as bright a beast as if it had been finished yesterday. No one at Sea Gull Manor except Peter would have given Fido house-room. But he liked the dog, and now sat down on it, lifting his mother's little feet to place them on his knee.
"You oughtn't to have waited up," he remarked, having kissed her snow-white hair and both apple-pink cheeks and settled himself more or less comfortably on Fido.
"I thought I would," she returned placidly. "I like being here. And I had just this to finish." She held up a wide strip of crotcheted lace. "It's 'most done now. It's go'n' to be a bedspread for Ena. But I don't' know if she——"
Mrs. Rolls did not finish the sentence, but it was a long, long ago established custom of hers not to finish sentences. Except when alone with Petro, she seldom made any attempt to bring one to an end. It was life at Peter senior's side which had got her out of the habit of trying to complete what she began to say. As he generally interrupted her when she spoke, even in their | | 259 early years together, she had almost unconsciously taken it for granted that he would do so, and stopped like a run-down mechanical doll at about the place where her quick - minded husband was due to break in.
Peter junior, who never interrupted (though he, too, had a quick mind), knew as well as if she had gone on, that his mother meant "I don't know if Ena will think a home-made coverlet of crotcheted lace smart enough for a real, live marchesa, but I feel I should like to make my daughter some bridal present with my own hands."
"Oh, yes, she's certain to. It'll be beautiful, if it's anything like the one you did for me," Petro assured her when the long pause had told him that Mother had no more to add. "Just think of Ena getting married!"
"Yes, indeed," sighed Mrs. Rolls. "And it seems only a little while since you were both——"
Peter knew that the missing word was "children." "Anyhow, she's happy, I think," he reflected aloud, a far-away look in his eyes.
"I guess so," Mother agreed. "She'll like real well being a——I wish——"
"Marchesa" was easy for Peter to supply mentally and would have been much easier for him to pronounce than it was for Mrs. Rolls, who had had small education in the management even of her native tongue.
She made dear little, cosy, common mistakes in grammar and other things. Peter adored her mistakes and Ena was ashamed of them. But in those good manners which are taught by the heart and not by the head no queen could have given Mrs. Rolls lessons.
As for the next sentence, beginning with "I wish——" and ending in the air, that was more difficult. Even Mother, so placid, seemingly so contented, must have many wishes. And so Petro ventured on a "What?"| | 260
"I wisht I could be just as sure you——"
"As sure that I'm happy?"
Peter had been looking at his mother's feet in those blue Japanese slippers whose cheapness was rather pathetic. (With all their money, she never enjoyed wearing expensive things herself. It was as if she felt lost and un-at-home in them.) But suddenly he glanced up. The pink-and-white face was as calm as usual, yet her tone had meant something in particular. A chord seemed to vibrate in his soul, as if she had softly, yet purposely, touched it with her finger.
"Don't you believe I am happy?" he asked.
"Not—just like you used to be," she said. Their eyes met as she lifted hers from her work and began rolling it up, finished. She blushed beautifully, like a girl.
Peter pressed both the little feet between his hands, pressed them almost convulsively. He did not stop to think how strong his fingers were, though Logan had had cause to realize their strength two hours ago. The pressure hurt the small toes so lightly covered. And the mother of this strong, though slight young man gloried in the hurt. She was proud of it, proud of Peter, the one thing in the world she felt was really hers.
"Mother!" he said in a low, tense voice. "What told you?"
"Why—just bein' your mother, I guess. I was wonderin'—#x2014;"
"Whether some day you'd say something."
"I wanted to. I wanted to talk to you about—about it all. But I was afraid it might make you sad. I like to think of you always happy, dearest. And I couldn't bear to be the one to chase away your smile I love so much."| | 261
"It's thinking of you helps me to smile, Petie," said his mother, reverting to the pet name of his childhood as she stroked his smooth black hair. "If 'twasn't for knowing I've got you—and your loving me—I do believe I could never smile."
"You're not unhappy?" Peter cried out, startled. It would be a dreadful pain to know that the placid reserve of this sweet, loved woman meant unhappiness.
"Not while I have you. But——"
"You must go on, dear. Tell me what you feel. We're here together, all alone in the night, talking out our hearts. It seems as if it was meant to be—my finding you waiting here."
"I guess maybe it was, Petie. Something kind of said to me, 'You wait up for him. He wants you.' And I—why, I always want you, boy."
"Darling! We've got each other fast."
"Thanks be, dear! My! You don't know the times I've sneaked in and set in this room when you was away. And even now, if you're go'n' to be out pretty late, I bring in my work 'most always when your pa's out. I generally slip back to my room before you come in, because I know you think I oughtn't to be sittin' up. You mightn't just understand that 'twas because this is my only real home."
"Your only real home? Why, mother!"
"The rest of the house is so big—and so awful new-fashioned and grand. Not like me a bit," she apologized meekly—but not with the flurried meekness of her apologies to Peter senior. "Here you've saved all my dear old things I had in the days before everything was big. I never can get used to it, and I never will now. It's the bigness, I guess, that's seemed—somehow—to take your pa and Ena away from me—long ago. But I've got you. And you let me come here. So I am happy. I'm a real happy woman, Petie. An | | 262 I want you to be happy the way you used to be—or some better way, not all restless like you are now. I guess if there was some one you loved different from me you wouldn't make a new life for yourself without a little place in it for Mother, would you—just a weenty little place I could come and live in sometimes for a while?"
"I'd want you in it always," said Peter. He leaned up and wound his arms around the plump, formless waist in the neat dressing-gown. "So would she—if there were a she. I hate the ' bigness,' too—the kind of false, smart bigness that you mean. We'll have a little house—she and you and I. For your room will be there, and you'll be in it whenever Father'll spare you. But I'm running away in what I used to call my 'dreamobile'! I haven't found her yet. That is, I found her once and lost her again. I'm looking for her now. Mother, do you know what a leitmotif is?"
"No, dear, indeed I don't. I'm afraid I don't know many of the things I——"
"There's no reason why you should know this. In Wagner's operas, which I don't understand, perhaps, but which I love with thrills in my spine—and that's a kind of understanding—whenever a character comes on the stage he or she always is followed by a certain strain of music—music that expresses character, and seems even to describe a person. Well, wall-flower perfume might be your leitmotif. Can't you hear perfume? I can. Just as you can seem to see music—wonderful, changing colours. The wall-flower scent's all around us now. It's you. But through it I imagine another perfume. It's here, too. It's been with me for months. Because I've got to feel it's her spirit, her leitmotif. The perfume of fresias. Do you know it?"
"I thought maybe she liked it," Mother said calmly.
"What put that idea in your darling head?"| | 263
"Why, because you've been havin' fresias planted in the garden—and put in your room—as long as they lasted through the spring. You'd never thought of 'em before as I know of."
"You witch! You notice everything. Who'd believe it, you're so quiet?"
"Of course I notice things about you. I wouldn't be fit to be your mother if I didn't. Now, do you feel like tellin' me things about her?"
"I'm longing to," said Peter.
They forgot it was late at night. He told her everything, beginning at the moment when he had plunged through the dryad door and going on to the moment when he had lost not only the girl, but her friendship, though he said nothing of the Moon dress or the shut-up house. Even then he did not stop.
"I must have done something inadvertently," he went on, "to make her stop liking me all of a sudden. For she did like me at first. There was no flirting or anything silly about it. I felt there was a reason for her changing, and ever since, every day and every night, I've been trying to make out what it could have been. I've thought the idea might come to me. But it never has. That's partly why I'm so anxious to find her—to make her explain. I was too taken aback, too—sort of stunned—to go about it the right way when she changed to me at the last minute there on the dock. Once I could understand, why, I might start with her again at the beginning and work up. It would give me a chance—the chance I once thought I had, you know—to try to make her care. Maybe it would be no use Maybe I'm not the kind she could ever like that way, even if things hadn't gone wrong. But—but, Mother, it's been just agony to think that all this time she's hated me through some beastly misunderstanding which might easily have been cleared up."| | 264
"My poor boy!" The kind voice soothed him. "I guess that's the worst pain of all. I knew there was something hurting you, but I didn't know 'twas as hard a hurt as this. But 'twill come right. I feel it will—if she's really the right girl."
"She's the only girl!" exclaimed Peter. "You'd love her, and she'd adore you."
"Tell me just what she looks like," commanded Mother, shutting her eyes to see the picture better.
Peter excelled himself in his description of Winifred Child. "Nobody ever even dreamed of another girl who looked or talked or acted a bit like her," he raved. "She's so original!"
"Why, but that's just what somebody did!" Mother cried, throwing off the cloak of her placidity. "Lady Eileen."
"Lady Eileen did what?"
"Dreamed about such a girl. It must have been a real interesting dream, because she couldn't get it out of her head and told me all about it. She saw a tall, dark girl, with wonderful eyes and a fascinating mouth and graceful sort of ways like you've been telling me about. Hearing Lady Eileen talk was almost like seeing a photograph. In the dream you were in love with the girl—English she was, too, like the real one—and ransacking New York for her, while all the time she——"
"Yes—yes, dear! All the time she——"
"Lady Eileen said particularly I was to tell you about her dream and let you know she wanted you to hear it, because it seemed kind of dramatic and made her almost superstitious, it was so real every way. But she made me promise I wouldn't say a word unless you spoke first about such a girl as she dreamed of—and told me you loved her and wanted to find her again. If I began, it would spoil the romance, and there wouldn't be anything in it. That was how Lady Eileen felt."| | 265
Peter listened, but his spirit had rushed on past these explanations. Lady Eileen had chosen this method of leaving a message for him. It was a strange method, and he did not understand why she had not herself told him of the dream. But she was a kind and clever girl, a true friend. There must have been a good motive for the delay. Loyal himself, he believed in her loyalty, and was grateful. But he could not stop to think of her now.
"Where did Lady Eileen see my dryad girl—in the dream?" he asked.
"At Father's place," said Mother simply. "At the Hands."
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