If You Touch

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6. Chapter VI



Old Martha was longer in New York than she had intended to be. There were plenty of servants out of work on the lists of the various employment agencies which she visited. But Martha's requirements were such as the average servant can not meet or will not face, and candidates for the place and wages she offered asked questions and were not satisfied with her answers.

"And where is the house?"

"Canada."

"Is it a city?"

"It's country."

"Are there neighbors?"

"No."

"What manner of man is the master?"

"A fine, kind man."

"Married?"

"Single."

"An old man?"

"A young man. But you'll not see the master."

"Me work for a man I don't see?"

"He don't see nobody but me."

"What ails him?"

"Nothing. 'Tis his way. He's shy o' people."

"There'll be no company, then?"

"None."

"What men will there be to help about the place?"

"The men that drive in from the village with supplies."

"How far off is the village?"

"Twelve miles. When they can't drive they come in on snow-shoes."

"Hum!"

"What more can I tell you?"

"You've told enough. I would not touch the place with a pole, not for twice the wages. I'd rather be dead than twelve miles from everywhere and never a man in the house."

Girls who seemed able and willing wouldn't go, two were willing to try the place for a month, but Martha did not like their faces or their voices. She was in despair, until one day, far from any employment agency, a chance meeting settled the matter.

"Why, Martha!"

"If it isn't Miss Joy!"

And for a moment old Martha was dazed, for except in the pursuit of sport, tennis or golf, Miss Joceylin Grey was not the sort of girl who is met walking. And here she was crossing Madison Square on the long diagonal, in shoes that had not been blacked that day, and furthermore she was not headed for the avenue but away from it, and dusk was descending upon the city. And furthermore the color that had been her chiefest glory in the old Palm Beach and Newport days was all gone, and she looked very thin and delicate, and tired and discouraged. And where, oh where, were the gardenias that she always wore during the time of year when they are rarest and most expensive? Where even were the child's gloves, old Martha asked herself, her sables? Her pearls?

"Why, Miss Joy," she exclaimed, "you look as if your father had lost every cint he had in the world."

The girl flushed uneasily, but her eyes did not fall from the old woman's.

"Everybody knows that, Martha. Where have you been?"

"Stone deaf," said Martha, "among me own sorrows. But you're all in black."

"I lost my father, too."

Old Martha made a soft, crooning sound of pity.

"So," and Miss Joy tried to speak bravely. "I live all alone now, and--"

"Have ye no money?"

"Not a penny, Martha. I had a job as a reporter until they asked me to do things that I wouldn't do."

"And when did you lose this job?"

"Day before yesterday."

"And now?"

"Oh, something will turn up."

"Meaning that nothing has."

"Not yet." She was beginning to shiver with the cold. "Good-by, Martha, it's good to see you again, and I could stand here talking till all hours if it wasn't for the wind."

She had given both her hands to Martha, but this one would not let them go. Her fine, gentle, old face became set and obstinate.

"When did you eat last?"

The girl smiled wanly and shivered.

She felt her arm being drawn through Martha's. She felt herself pulled rapidly toward the avenue.

Martha, satisfied with the face of a passing taxicab's driver, whistled with sudden, piercing shrillness.

"Where are you taking me?"

Old Martha's eyes became humorous. It was pleasant to her to play fairy godmother to a millionaire's daughter.

"To me suite in the St. Savior," said she. "To a hot tub, dearie, and a hot dinner, and a warm bed."

In Martha's sitting-room were flowers. She could afford them. On the bureau in her bedroom was a large photograph of the Poor Boy, in an eighteen-carat gold frame, very plain and smart.

While Martha was undoing the hooks of her dress Miss Joy stood in front of the bureau and looked at this photograph.

"Poor Boy," she said presently.

"What's that?" said Martha.

"What's become of him, Martha?"

Martha told her.

"It was all so wicked," said the girl.

"Wicked," said Martha, "was no name for it. All his friends to believe he'd do a thing like that! I could skin them alive, the lot of them!"

"I was one of his friends, Martha."

"I make no war on women," said Martha.

"I say I was one of his friends--but I never believed he did it--I mean how could he, and why should he?"

"Perhaps you wrote to tell him you believed in him!"

"I wish I had," said the girl, "but I thought everybody would, and then you know we had a sort of a misunderstanding; and I was going to, and then my father's troubles got so bad that he couldn't hide them from me, and we used to talk them over all night sometimes, and I couldn't think about anybody else's troubles.--Is he up there all alone?"

"There's the last hook. And now I'll draw a tub."

Miss Joy undressed herself to the music of water roaring under high pressure into a deep porcelain tub. She was no longer hungry, for she had had a glass of milk on arriving at the hotel, but she was very tired and a little dizzy in her head.

As is the custom with girls who have been brought up with maids to dress and undress them, she flung her clothes upon a chair in a disorderly heap, and was no more embarrassed at being naked before Martha than if Martha had been a piece of furniture.

"Come and talk to me, Martha," she said, "while I soak."

So Martha sat by the tub as by a bedside, and Miss Joy with a sigh of comfort lay at length in the hot water and they talked.

"Is he up there all alone?"

"He is now. The housework was too heavy for one old woman. He sent me to New York to find a helper. But the wages don't make up for the loneliness in the young biddy's mind--in what she is plazed to call her mind--and I'm five days lookin' about and nothing done."

"Wages?" sighed Miss Joy. "They sound good to me."

"To think of wages sounding good to you, Miss Joy!"

"But they do. I'd do almost anything for money."

"Ye would not, Miss Joy."

"You don't know me."

"I know well that you could 'a' had Mr. Ludlow for the taking, and him nearly as rich as me Poor Boy."

"So I could," said Miss Joy, "and perhaps I shall marry him after all."

"What!" exclaimed Martha. "Marry that old devil! Tell me ye'd sooner starve--or--get out of me tub, and take yourself off!"

Old Martha rose hurriedly with a squeak of dismay, and rushed to close the door between the bedroom and the sitting-room. She returned breathing fast.

"They were knocking with the dinner," she explained, "and all the doors open! Ye've soaked long enough, deary. Come out."

"Not until you say that you know I wouldn't marry Mr. Ludlow to save me from drowning."

"Full well I know it," said Martha heartily. "Come out."

The girl came out of the tub reluctantly, and presently, swathed in Martha's best lavender dressing-gown (she had bought it that morning), was lifting a spoonful of clear green-turtle soup to her lips.

"Martha!"

"Miss Joy!"

"I see champagne."

"'Tis not only to look at, Miss Joy."

"It's wonderful," said Miss Joy, "starving--I meet you--champagne--and to-morrow--"

Her sudden high spirits suddenly fell.

"Oh, Martha, from the top of even a small tree to the ground is a cruel, hard fall!"

"We were speakin' of wages, Miss Joy. And of a certain young lady willin' to do almost anything for money. Will ye come back to the woods with me to help with the housework?"

"Oh, but Martha--it wouldn't do. It isn't as if I'd never known him--but we were such good friends--and it would all be too uncomfortable and embarrassing."

"Ye'd never see him, Miss Joy."

"Never see him!"

"He will look no one in the face but me. The faces that he loved are nightmares to him now--all but old Martha's. No, Miss Joy--ye might, peepin' from behind curtains, set eyes on me Poor Boy, but as for you, he'd not know if you was man or woman, old or young, unless I told him. He has his rules; when the men come in from the village he disappears like a ghost. When they have gone he comes back. There'd be hours for housework, when he'd be out of the way, and that there was a born lady helping old Martha out and kapin' the poor woman company--he'd never know--never at all."

"Hum," said Miss Joy to the bubbles in her glass of champagne.

"The life," said Martha, "will bring back the color to your cheeks, the flesh to your bones, the courage to your heart."

"Am I so dreadfully thin?"

"If I was that thin," said Martha, "I'd hate to have me best friends see me without me clothes. But ye've the makin's of a Vanus, and that's more than ever I had."

Miss Joy laughed aloud.

Then, after a silence, and very seriously: "You're sure he'd never know that I was in the house?"

"Not unless I told him."

"But you wouldn't tell him?"

"Not if he hitched wild horses to me sacret and lashed them."

Another thoughtful silence.

"There's just one thing, Martha," said Miss Joy, "that I won't do."

Martha flung up her hands in a gesture of despair.

"That's what they all say!" she cried. "That's how they all get out o' comin'. Well, what is it that ye won't do?"

Miss Joy hated to say. She was a little ashamed. She had enjoyed the reputation of being a good sport, a girl whom it was hard to dare. But she had her weakness. "I won't," she said, "I won't--I can't--bring myself to touch a live lobster."

Old Martha's face became extremely grave. She leaned forward. She was all confidence.

"Deary," she said, "nor more can I."

The two women exploded into laughter, loud and prolonged.

"Well," said Miss Joy at last, and she was still laughing, "it's a sporting proposition.... When do we start?"

"Ye must have warm clothes first."

"I have no money, Martha."

"Do ye remember a house ye took one winter, while your poor father was tearin' out the innerds of his own?"

"On Park Avenue and--"

"The same," said Martha. "The northwest corner. Ye were my tenants that winter.... Yes, deary, I am a rich old woman. And, between you and me, your poor father wanted that house the worst way, and me agents stuck him good and plenty. There's a balance comin' to ye, Miss Joy. 'Tis what they call conscience money, and 'twill buy ye warm clothes, and maybe a bit jool to go at your throat." "Martha--Martha, what makes you so good to me?"

"Have ye not said ye never believed that me Poor Boy did what they said he did?"

"Is that the only reason?"

"There's another," said Martha. "For in all the world, next to his, ye've the swatest face and way with yez."

The old woman's emotions rose, and her brogue became heavier and heavier upon her, until her words lost all semblance of meaning. And Miss Joy, warm and well fed, leaned back in her deep chair and listened and tried to understand, and looked into Martha's face with eyes that were dark and misty with tenderness.

And she slept that night and late into the next morning, without stirring. And when she waked there was already a little flicker of color in her pale face.