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AN OLD CHESTER SECRET

[Illustration]




BOOKS BY

MARGARET DELAND

AN OLD CHESTER SECRET
THE PROMISES OF ALICE
THE AWAKENING OF HELENA RICHIE
THE RISING TIDE
AROUND OLD CHESTER
THE HANDS OF ESAU
OLD CHESTER TALES
AN ENCORE
DR. LAVENDAR'S PEOPLE
PARTNERS
THE IRON WOMAN
THE VOICE
WHERE THE LABORERS ARE FEW

* * * * *

HARPER & BROTHERS, NEW YORK
ESTABLISHED 1817

[Illustration: [See p. 18

"WHAT! INSULT THIS LADY BY ASKING FOR A 'PROMISE'?"]





AN OLD CHESTER SECRET


By MARGARET DELAND

_Author of_
"OLD CHESTER TALES" "THE IRON WOMAN"
"AROUND OLD CHESTER" ETC.

_Illustrations by_
F. WALTER TAYLOR

[Illustration]

HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS
NEW YORK AND LONDON




AN OLD CHESTER SECRET
- -
Copyright, 1920, by Harper & Brothers
Printed in the United States of America
Published October, 1920




To Lorin -
for this book, too,
is his.

Kennebunkport
August 12, 1920




ILLUSTRATIONS


"WHAT! INSULT THIS LADY BY ASKING FOR A 'PROMISE'?" _Frontispiece_

"I WILL NOT GIVE ANY OF MY APPLES BACK. THEY'RE MINE" _Facing p._ 32

"IF I SAW HIM ONCE I MIGHT WANT TO SEE HIM AGAIN" " 56

"HEARTS DON'T ANSWER WHEN REASON WHISTLES TO THEM," HE SAID " 104




AN OLD CHESTER SECRET




CHAPTER I


THERE was not a person in Old Chester less tainted by the vulgarity of
secretiveness than Miss Lydia Sampson. She had no more reticence than
sunshine or wind, or any other elemental thing. How much of this was due
to conditions it would be hard to say; certainly there was no
"reticence" in her silence as to her neighbors' affairs; she simply
didn't know them! Nobody ever dreamed of confiding in Lydia Sampson! And
she could not be reticent about her own affairs because they were
inherently public. When she was a girl she broke her engagement to Mr.
William Rives two weeks before the day fixed for the wedding - and the
invitations were all out! So of course everybody knew _that_. To be
sure, she never said why she broke it, but all Old Chester knew she
hated meanness, and felt sure that she had given her William the choice
of being generous or being jilted - and he chose the latter. As she grew
older the joyous, untidy makeshifts of a poverty which was always
hospitable and never attempted to be genteel, stared you in the face the
minute you entered the house; so everybody knew she was poor. Years
later, her renewed engagement to Mr. Rives, and his flight some ten
minutes before the marriage ceremony, were known to everybody because we
had all been invited to the wedding, which cost (as we happened to know,
because we had presented her with just exactly that amount) _a hundred
dollars_! At the sight of such extravagance the thrifty William turned
tail and ran, and we gave thanks and said he was a scoundrel to make us
thankful, though, with the exception of Doctor Lavendar, we deplored the
extravagance as much as he did! As for Doctor Lavendar, he said that it
was a case of the grasshopper and the ant; "but Lydia is a gambling
grasshopper," said Doctor Lavendar; "she took tremendous chances, for
suppose the party _hadn't_ scared William off?"

So, obviously, anything which was personal to Miss Lydia was public
property. She simply couldn't be secretive.

Then, suddenly, and in the open (so to speak) of her innocent candor, a
Secret pounced upon her! At first Old Chester didn't know that there was
a secret. We merely knew that on a rainy December day (this was about
eight months after William had turned tail) she was seen to get into the
Mercer stage, carrying a carpetbag in one hand and a bandbox in the
other. This was surprising enough - for why should Lydia Sampson spend
her money on going to Mercer? Yet it was not so surprising as the fact
that she did not come back from Mercer! And even that was a comparative
surprise; the superlative astonishment was when it became known that she
had left her door key at the post office and said she didn't know when
she would return!

"Where on earth has she gone?" said Old Chester. But only Mrs. Drayton
attempted to reply:

"It certainly looks _very_ strange," said Mrs. Drayton.

It was with the turning of her front-door key that Miss Lydia made
public confession of secrecy - although she had resigned herself to it,
privately, three months before. The Secret had taken possession of her
one hazy September evening, as she was sitting on her front doorstep,
slapping her ankles when a mosquito discovered them, and watching the
dusk falling like a warm veil across the hills. The air was full of the
scent of evening primroses, and Miss Lydia, looking at a clump of them
close to the step, could see the pointed buds begin to unfurl, then
hesitate, then tremble, then opening with a silken burst of sound, spill
their perfume into the twilight. Except for the crickets, it was very
still. Once in a while some one plodded down the road, and once, when it
was quite dark, Mr. Smith's victoria rumbled past, paused until the iron
gates of his driveway swung open, then rumbled on to his big, handsome
house. He was one of the new Smiths, having lived in Old Chester hardly
twenty years; when he came he brought his bride with him - a Norton, she
was, from New England. A nice enough woman, I suppose, but not a
Pennsylvanian. He and his wife built this house, which was so imposing
that for some time they were thought of, contemptuously, as the _rich_
Smiths. But by and by Old Chester felt more kindly and just called them
the new Smiths. Mrs. Smith died when their only child, Mary, was a
little girl, and Mr. Smith grew gradually into our esteem. The fact was,
he was so good-looking and good-humored and high-tempered (he showed his
teeth when he was in a rage, just as a dog does) Old Chester had to like
him - even though it wished he was a better landlord to Miss Lydia, to
whom he rented a crumbling little house just outside his gates. In
matters of business Mr. Smith exacted his pound of flesh - and he got it!
In Lydia's case it sometimes really did represent "flesh," for she must
have squeezed her rent out of her food. Yet when, after her frightful
extravagance in giving that party on money we had given her for the
rebuilding of her chimney, Mr. Smith rebuilt it himself, and said she
was a damned plucky old bird. - "Looks like a wet hen," said Mr. Smith,
"but plucky! plucky!" - After that, our liking for him became quite
emphatic. Not that Old Chester liked his epithets or approved of his
approval of Miss Lydia's behavior (she bought kid gloves for her party,
if you please! and a blue-silk dress; and, worse than all, presents for
all Old Chester, of canary birds and pictures and what not, _all out of
our hundred dollars_!) - we did not like the laxity of Mr. Smith's
judgments upon the Grasshopper's conduct, but we did approve of his
building her chimney, because it saved us from putting our hands in our
own pockets again.

In the brown dusk of the September evening, Miss Lydia, watching her
landlord roll past in his carriage, gave him a friendly nod. "He's
nice," she said, "and so good-looking!" Her eyes followed him until, in
the shadows of the great trees of the driveway, she lost sight of him.
Then she fell to thinking about his daughter, a careless young creature,
handsome and selfish, with the Smith high color and black eyes, who was
engaged to be married to another handsome young creature, fatter at
twenty-three than is safe for the soul of a young man. Miss Lydia did
not mind Carl's fat because she had a heart for lovers. Apparently her
own serial and unhappy love affair had but increased her interest in
happier love affairs. To be sure, Mary's affair had had the zest of a
little bit of unhappiness - just enough to amuse older people. The boy
had been ordered off by his firm in Mercer, at a day's notice, to
attend to some business in Mexico, and the wedding, which was to have
been in April, had to be postponed for six months. Carl had been
terribly down in the mouth about it, and Mary, in the twenty-four hours
given them for farewells, had cried her eyes out, and even, at the last
minute, just before her young man started off, implored her father to
let them get married - which plea, of course, he laughed at, for the new
Mr. Smith was not the sort of man to permit his only daughter to be
married in such hole-and-corner fashion! As it happened, Carl got back,
quite unexpectedly, in September - but his prospective father-in-law was
obdurate.

"It won't hurt you to wait. 'Anticipation makes a blessing dear!'
December first you can have her," said the new Mr. Smith, much amused by
the young people's doleful sentimentality.

Miss Lydia, now, slapping the mosquitoes, and thinking about the
approaching "blessing," in friendly satisfaction at so much young
happiness being next door to her, hugged herself because of her own
blessings.

"I don't want to brag," she thought, "but certainly I am the luckiest
person!" To count up her various pieces of luck (starting with the
experience of being jilted): She had a nice landlord who looked like
Zeus, with his flashing black eyes and snow-white hair and beard. And
she had so many friends! And she believed she could manage to make her
black alpaca last another winter. "It is spotted," she thought, "but
what real difference does a spot make?" (Miss Lydia was one of those
rare people who have a sense of the relative values of life.) "It's a
warm skirt," said Miss Lydia, weighing the importance of that spot with
the expense of a new dress; "and, anyway, whenever I look at it, it just
makes me think of the time I spilled the cream down the front at Harriet
Hutchinson's. What a good time I had at Harriet's!" After that she
reflected upon the excellent quality of her blue silk. "I shall probably
wear it only once or twice a year; it ought to last me my lifetime,"
said Miss Lydia. . . . It was just as she reached this blessing that,
somewhere in the shadows, a quivering voice called, "Miss Sampson?" and
out of the darkness of the Smith driveway came a girlish figure. The
iron gates clanged behind her, and she came up the little brick path to
Miss Lydia's house with a sort of rush, a sort of fury; her voice was
demanding and frightened and angry all together. "Miss Lydia!"

Miss Lydia, startled from her blessings, screwed up her eyes, then,
recognizing her visitor, exclaimed: "Why, my dear! What is the matter?"
And again, in real alarm, "What _is_ it?" For Mary Smith, dropping down
on the step beside her, was trembling. "My dear!" Miss Lydia said, in
consternation.

"Miss Sampson, something - something has happened. A - a - an accident.
I've come to you. I didn't know where else to go." She spoke with a sort
of sobbing breathlessness.

"You did just right," said Miss Lydia, "but what - "

"You've got to help me! There's nobody else."

"Of course I will! But tell me - "

"If you don't help me, I'll die," Mary Smith said. She struck her soft
clenched fist on her knee, then covered her face with her hands. "But
you must promise me you won't tell? Ever - ever!"

"Of course I won't."

"And you'll help me? Oh, say you'll help me!"

"Have you and he quarreled?" said Miss Lydia, quickly. Her own
experience flashed back into her mind; it came to her with a little
flutter of pride that this child - she was really only a child, just
nineteen - who was to be married so soon, trusted to her worldly wisdom
in such matters, and came for advice.

"She hasn't any mother," Miss Lydia thought, sympathetically. "If you've
quarreled, you and he," she said, putting her little roughened hand on
Mary's soft, shaking fist, "tell him you're sorry. Kiss and make up!"
Then she remembered why she and her William had not kissed and made up.
"Unless" - she hesitated - "he has done something that isn't nice?"
("Nice" was Miss Lydia's idea of perfection.) "But I'm sure he hasn't!
He seemed to me, when I saw him, a very pleasing young man. So kiss and
make up!"

The younger woman was not listening. "I had to wait all day to come and
speak to you. I've been frantic - _frantic_ - waiting! But I couldn't have
anybody see me come. They would have wondered. If you don't help me - "

"But I will, Mary, I will! Don't you love him?"

"_Love_ him?" said the girl. "My God!" Then, in a whisper, "If I only
hadn't loved him - _so much_. . . . I am going to have a baby."

It seemed as if Miss Lydia's little friendly chirpings were blown from
her lips in the gust of these appalling words.

Mary herself was suddenly composed. "They sent him off to Mexico at
twenty-four hours' notice; it was cruel - cruel, to send him away! and he
came to say good-by - And. . . . And then I begged and begged father to
let us get married; even the very morning that he went away, I said:
'Let us get married to-day. Please, father, _please_!' And he wouldn't,
he wouldn't! He wanted a big wedding. Oh, what did I care about a big
wedding! Still - I never supposed - But I went to Mercer yesterday and
saw a doctor, and - and found out. I couldn't believe it was true. I said
I'd die if it was true! And he said it was. . . . So then I rushed to
Carl's office. . . . He was frightened - for me. And then we thought of
you. And all day to-day I've just walked the floor - waiting to get down
here to see you. I couldn't come until it was dark. Father thinks I'm
in bed with a headache. I told the servants to tell him I had a
headache. . . . We've got to manage somehow to make him let us get
married right off. But - but even that won't save me. It will be known.
It will be known - in January."

Miss Lydia was speechless.

"So you've got to help me. There's nobody else on earth who can. Oh, you
must - you must!"

"But what can I do?" Miss Lydia gasped.

"Carl and I will go away somewhere. Out West where nobody knows us. And
then you'll come. And you'll take - _It_. You'll take care of it. And you
can have all the money you want."

"My dear," Miss Lydia said, trembling, "this is very, very dreadful, but
I - "

The girl burst into rending crying. "Don't you - suppose _I_ know that
it's - it's - it's dreadful?"

"But I don't see how I can possibly - "

"If you won't help me, I'll go right down to the river. Oh, Miss Lydia,
help me! Please, _please_ help me!"

"But it's impos - "

Mary stopped crying. "It isn't. It's perfectly possible! You'll simply
go away to visit some friends - "

"I haven't any friends, except in Old Chester - "

"And when you come back you'll bring - _It_ with you. And you'll say
you've adopted it. You'll say it's the child of a friend."

Miss Lydia was silent.

"If you won't help me," Mary burst out, "I'll - "

"Does anybody know?" said Miss Lydia.

"No."

"Oh, my dear, my dear! You must tell your father."

"My _father_?" She laughed with terror.

Then Miss Lydia Sampson did an impossible thing - judging from Old
Chester's knowledge of her character. She said, "He's got to know or I
won't help you."

Mary's recoil showed how completely, poor child! she had always had her
own way; to be crossed now by this timid old maid was like going head-on
into a gray mist and finding it a stone wall. There was a tingling
silence. "Then I'll kill myself," she said.

Miss Lydia gripped her small, work-worn hands together, but said
nothing.

"Oh, please help me!" Mary said.

"I will - if you'll tell your father or Doctor Lavendar. I don't care
which."

"Neither!" said the girl. She got on her feet and stood looking down at
little shabby Miss Lydia sitting on the step with her black frizette
tumbling forward over one frightened blue eye. Then she covered her face
with those soft, trembling hands, all dimpled across the knuckles.

"Carl wanted to tell. He said, 'Let's tell people I was a scoundrel - and
stand up to it.' And I said, 'Carl, I'll die first!' And I will, Miss
Lydia. I'll die rather than have it known. Nobody must know - ever."

Miss Lydia shook her head. "Somebody besides me must know." Then very
faintly she said, "_I'll_ tell your father." There was panic in her
voice, but Mary's voice, from behind the dimpled hands, was shrill with
panic:

"You mustn't! Oh, you promised not to tell!"

Miss Lydia went on, quietly, "He and I will decide what to do."

"No, no!" Mary said. "He'll kill Carl!"

"I shouldn't think Carl would mind," said Miss Lydia.

The girl dropped down again on the step. "Oh, what shall I do - what
shall I do - what shall I do? He'll hate me."

"He'll be very, very unhappy," said Miss Lydia; "but he'll know what
must be done. I don't. And he'll forgive you."

"He won't forgive Carl! Father never forgives. He says so! And if he
won't forgive Carl he mustn't forgive me!" She hid her face.

There was a long silence. Then she said, in a whisper, "When will you
. . . tell him?"

"To-night."

Again she cringed away. "Not to-night! Please not to-night. Oh, you
promised you wouldn't tell! I can't bear - Let me think. I'll write to
Carl. No! No! Father _mustn't_ know!"

"Listen," said Lydia Sampson; "you must get married right off. You can't
wait until December. That's settled. But your father must manage it so
that nobody will suspect - anything. Understand?"

"I mean to do that, anyway, but - "

"Unless you tell a great many small stories," said little, truthful Miss
Lydia, "you can't manage it; but your father will just tell one big
story, about business or something. Gentlemen can always tell stories
about business, and you can't find 'em out. The way we do about
headaches. Mr. Smith will say business makes it necessary for him to
hurry the wedding up so he can go away to - any place. See?"

Mary saw, but she shook her head. "He'll kill Carl," she said again.

"No, he won't," said Miss Lydia, "because then everything would come
out; and, besides, he'd get hanged."

Again there was a long silence; then Mary said, suddenly, violently:

"Well - _tell him_."

"Oh, my!" said Miss Lydia, "my! my!"

But she got up, took the child's soft, shrinking hand, and together in
the hazy silence of the summer night they walked - Miss Lydia hurrying
forward, Mary holding back - between the iron gates and up the driveway
to the great house.

Talk about facing the cannon's mouth! When Miss Sampson came into the
new Mr. Smith's library he was sitting in a circle of lamplight at his
big table, writing and smoking. He looked up at her with a resigned
shrug. "Wants something done to her confounded house!" he thought. But
he put down his cigar, got on his feet, and said, in his genial, wealthy
way:

"Well, my good neighbor! How are you?"

Miss Lydia could only gasp, "Mr. Smith - " (there was a faint movement
outside the library door and she knew Mary was listening). "Mr. Smith - "

"Sit down, sit down!" he said. "I am afraid you are troubled about
something?"

She sat down on the extreme edge of a chair, and he stood in front of
her, stroking his white beard and looking at her, amused and bored, and
very rich - but not unkind.

"Mr. Smith - " she faltered. She swallowed two or three times, and
squeezed her hands together; then, brokenly, but with almost no
circumlocution, she told him. . . .

There was a terrible scene in that handsome, shadowy, lamplit room. Miss
Lydia emerged from it white and trembling; she fairly ran back to her
own gate, stumbled up the mossy brick path to her front door, burst into
her unlighted house, then locked the door and bolted it, and fell in a
small, shaking heap against it, as if it barred out the loud anger and
shame which she had left behind her in the great house among the trees.

While Mary had crouched in the hall, her ear against the keyhole, Miss
Lydia Sampson had held that blazing-eyed old man to common sense. No, he
must _not_ carry the girl to Mercer the next day, and take the hound by
the throat, and marry them out of hand. No, he must _not_ summon the
scoundrel to Old Chester and send for Doctor Lavendar. No, he must _not_
have a private wedding. . . . "They must be married in church and have
white ribbons up the aisle," gasped Miss Lydia, "and - and rice. Don't
you understand? And it isn't nice, Mr. Smith, to use such language
before ladies."

It was twelve o'clock when Miss Lydia, in her dark entry, went over in
her own mind the "language" which had been used; all he had vowed he
would do, and all she had declared he should not do, and all Mary
(called in from the hall) had retorted as to the cruel things that had
been done to her and Carl "which had just driven them _wild_!" And then
the curious rage with which Mr. Smith had turned upon his daughter when
she cried out, "Father, make her promise not to tell!" At that the new
Mr. Smith's anger touched a really noble note:

"What! Insult this lady by asking for a 'promise'? Good God! madam," he
said, turning to Miss Sampson, "is this girl mine, to offer such an
affront to a friend?"

At which Miss Lydia felt, just for an instant, that he _was_ nice. But
the next moment the thought of his fury at Mary made her feel sick.
Remembering it now, she said to herself, "It was awful in him to show
his teeth that way, and to call Mary - _that_." And again, "It wasn't
gentlemanly in him to use an indelicate word about the baby." Miss
Lydia's mind refused to repeat two of the new Mr. Smith's words. The
dreadfulness of them made her forget his momentary chivalry for her.
"Mary is only a child," she said to herself; "and as for the baby, I'll
take care of the little thing; I won't let it know that its own
grandfather called it - No, it wasn't nice in Mr. Smith to say such words
before a young lady like Mary, or before me, either, though I'm a good
deal older than Mary. I'm glad I told him so!" (Miss Lydia telling Zeus
he wasn't "nice"!)

This September midnight was the first Secret which pounced upon Miss
Lydia. The next was the new Mr. Smith's short and terrible interview
with his prospective son-in-law: "You are never to set foot in this
town." And then his order to his daughter: "Nor you, either, unless you
come without that man. And there are to be no letters to or from Miss
Sampson, understand that! I am not going to have people putting two and
two together."

Certainly no such mental arithmetic took place at the very gay Smith
wedding in the second week in September - a wedding with white ribbons up
the aisle! Yes, and a reception at the big house! and rice! and old
slippers!

But when the gayety was over, and the bride and groom drove off in great
state, Miss Lydia waved to them from her front door, and then stood
looking after the carriage with strange pitifulness in her face. How
much they had missed, these two who, instead of the joy and wonder and
mystery of going away together into their new world, were driving off,
scarcely speaking to each other, tasting on their young lips the stale
bitterness of stolen fruit! After the carriage was out of sight Miss
Lydia walked down the road to the rectory, carrying, as was the habit of
her exasperatingly generous poverty when calling on her friends, a
present, a tumbler of currant jelly for Doctor Lavendar. But when the
old man remonstrated, she did not, as usual, begin to excuse herself.
She only said, point-blank:

"Doctor Lavendar, is it ever right to tell lies to save other people?"

Doctor Lavendar, jingling the happy bridegroom's two gold pieces in his
pocket, said: "What? What?"

"Not to save yourself," said Miss Lydia; "I know you can't tell lies to
save yourself."

Doctor Lavendar stopped jingling his gold pieces and frowned; then he
said: "Miss Lydia, the truth about ourselves is the only safe way to
live. If other folks want to be safe let them tell their own truths. It
doesn't often help them for us to do it for 'em. My own principle has
been not to tell a lie about other folks' affairs, but to reserve the
truth. Understand?"

"I think I do," said Miss Lydia, faintly, "but it's difficult."

Doctor Lavendar looked at his two gold pieces thoughtfully. "Lydia," he
said, "it's like walking on a tight rope." Then he chuckled, dismissed
the subject, and spread out his eagles on the table. "Look at 'em!
Aren't they pretty? You see how glad Mary's young man was to get her.


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Online LibraryMargaret Wade Campbell DelandAn Old Chester secret → online text (page 1 of 6)