The next night, very, very late, in a furious riot of wind and snow and sleet, a clerk from the drug-store just around the corner appeared with a perfectly huge hot-water bottle fairly sizzling and bubbling with warmth and relief for aching rheumatic backs.
"Well, where in thunder--?" groaned Stanton out of his cold and pain and misery.
"Search me!" said the drug clerk. "The order and the money for it came in the last mail this evening. 'Kindly deliver largest-sized hot-water bottle, boiling hot, to Mr. Carl Stanton,... 11.30 to-night.'"
"OO-w!" gasped Stanton. "O-u-c-h! G-e-e!" then, "Oh, I wish I could purr!" as he settled cautiously back at last to toast his pains against the blessed, scorching heat. "Most girls," he reasoned with surprising interest, "would have sent ice cold violets shrouded in tissue paper. Now, how does this special girl know--Oh, Ouch! O-u-c-h! O-u-c-h--i--t--y!" he crooned himself to sleep.
The next night just at supper-time a much-freckled messenger-boy appeared dragging an exceedingly obstreperous fox-terrier on the end of a dangerously frayed leash. Planting himself firmly on the rug in the middle of the room, with the faintest gleam of saucy pink tongue showing between his teeth, the little beast sat and defied the entire situation. Nothing apparently but the correspondence concerning the situation was actually transferable from the freckled messenger boy to Stanton himself.
"Oh, dear Lad," said the tiny note, "I forgot to tell you my real name, didn't I!--Well, my last name and the dog's first name are just the same. Funny, isn't it? (You'll find it in the back of almost any dictionary.)
"P. S. Just turn the puppy out in the morning and he'll go home all right of his own accord."
With his own pink tongue showing just a trifle between his teeth, Stanton lay for a moment and watched the dog on the rug. Cocking his small, keen, white head from one tippy angle to another, the little terrier returned the stare with an expression that was altogether and unmistakably mirthful. "Oh, it's a jolly little beggar, isn't it?" said Stanton. "Come here, sir!" Only a suddenly pointed ear acknowledged the summons. The dog himself did not budge. "Come here, I say!" Stanton repeated with harsh peremptoriness. Palpably the little dog winked at him. Then in succession the little dog dodged adroitly a knife, a spoon, a copy of Browning's poems, and several other sizable articles from the table close to Stanton's elbow. Nothing but the dictionary seemed too big to throw. Finally with a grin that could not be disguised even from the dog, Stanton began to rummage with eye and hand through the intricate back pages of the dictionary.
[Illustration: A much-freckled messenger-boy appeared dragging an exceedingly obstreperous fox-terrier]
"You silly little fool," he said. "Won't you mind unless you are spoken to by name?"
"Aaron--Abidel--Abel--Abiathar--" he began to read out with petulant curiosity, "Baldwin--Barachias--Bruno (Oh, hang!) Cadwallader--Caesar--Caleb (What nonsense!) Ephraim--Erasmus (How could a girl be named anything like that!) Gabriel--Gerard--Gershom (Imagine whistling a dog to the name of Gershom!) Hannibal--Hezekiah--Hosea (Oh, Hell!)" Stolidly with unheedful, drooping ears the little fox-terrier resumed his seat on the rug. "Ichabod--Jabez--Joab," Stanton's voice persisted, experimentally. By nine o'clock, in all possible variations of accent and intonation, he had quite completely exhausted the alphabetical list as far as "K." and the little dog was blinking himself to sleep on the far side of the room. Something about the dog's nodding contentment started Stanton's mouth to yawning and for almost an hour he lay in the lovely, restful consciousness of being at least half asleep. But at ten o'clock he roused up sharply and resumed the task at hand, which seemed suddenly to have assumed really vital importance. "Laban--Lorenzo--Marcellus," he began again in a loud, clear, compelling voice. "Meredith--" (Did the little dog stir? Did he sit up?) "Meredith? Meredith?" The little dog barked. Something in Stanton's brain flashed. "It is 'Merry' for the dog?" he quizzed. "Here, MERRY!" In another instant the little creature had leaped upon the foot of his bed, and was talking away at a great rate with all sorts of ecstatic grunts and growls. Stanton's hand went out almost shyly to the dog's head. "So it's 'Molly Meredith'," he mused. But after all there was no reason to be shy about it. It was the _dog's_ head he was stroking.
Tied to the little dog's collar when he went home the next morning was a tiny, inconspicuous tag that said "That was easy! The pup's name--and yours--is 'Meredith.' Funny name for a dog but nice for a girl."
The Serial-Letter Co.'s answers were always prompt, even though perplexing.
"DEAR LAD," came this special answer. "You are quite right about the dog. And I compliment you heartily on your shrewdness. But I must confess,--even though it makes you very angry with me, that I have deceived you absolutely concerning my own name. Will you forgive me utterly if I hereby promise never to deceive you again? Why what could I possibly, possibly do with a great solemn name like 'Meredith'? My truly name, Sir, my really, truly, honest-injun name is 'Molly Make-Believe'. Don't you know the funny little old song about 'Molly Make-Believe'? Oh, surely you do:
"'Molly, Molly Make-Believe,
Keep to your play if you would not grieve!
For Molly-Mine here's a hint for you,
Things that are true are apt to be blue!'
"Now you remember it, don't you? Then there's something about
"'Molly, Molly Make-a-Smile,
Wear it, swear it all the while.
Long as your lips are framed for a joke,
Who can prove that your heart is broke?'
"Don't you love that 'is broke'! Then there's the last
"'Molly, Molly Make-a-Beau,
Make him of mist or make him of snow,
Long as your DREAM stays fine and fair,
_Molly, Molly what do you care!_'"
"Well, I'll wager that her name _is_ 'Meredith' just the same," vowed Stanton, "and she's probably madder than scat to think that I hit it right."
Whether the daily overtures from the Serial-Letter Co. proved to be dogs or love-letters or hot-water bottles or funny old songs, it was reasonably evident that something unique was practically guaranteed to happen every single, individual night of the six weeks' subscription contract. Like a youngster's joyous dream of chronic Christmas Eves, this realization alone was enough to put an absurdly delicious thrill of expectancy into any invalid's otherwise prosy thoughts.
Yet the next bit of attention from the Serial-Letter Co. did not please Stanton one half as much as it embarrassed him.
Wandering socially into the room from his own apartments below, a young lawyer friend of Stanton's had only just seated himself on the foot of Stanton's bed when an expressman also arrived with two large pasteboard hat-boxes which he straightway dumped on the bed between the two men with the laconic message that he would call for them again in the morning.
"Heaven preserve me!" gasped Stanton. "What is this?"
Fearsomely out of the smaller of the two boxes he lifted with much rustling snarl of tissue paper a woman's brown fur-hat,--very soft, very fluffy, inordinately jaunty with a blush-pink rose nestling deep in the fur. Out of the other box, twice as large, twice as rustly, flaunted a green velvet cavalier's hat, with a green ostrich feather as long as a man's arm drooping languidly off the brim.
"Holy Cat!" said Stanton.
Pinned to the green hat's crown was a tiny note. The handwriting at least was pleasantly familiar by this time.
"Oh, I say!" cried the lawyer delightedly.
With a desperately painful effort at nonchalance, Stanton shoved his right fist into the brown hat and his left fist into the green one, and raised them quizzically from the bed.
"Darned--good-looking--hats," he stammered.
"Oh, I say!" repeated the lawyer with accumulative delight.
Crimson to the tip of his ears, Stanton rolled his eyes frantically towards the little note.
"She sent 'em up just to show 'em to me," he quoted wildly. "Just 'cause I'm laid up so and can't get out on the streets to see the styles for myself.--And I've got to choose between them for her!" he ejaculated. "She says she can't decide alone which one to keep!"
"Bully for her!" cried the lawyer, surprisingly, slapping his knee. "The cunning little girl!"
Speechless with astonishment, Stanton lay and watched his visitor, then "Well, which one would you choose?" he asked with unmistakable relief.
The lawyer took the hats and scanned them carefully. "Let--me--see" he considered. "Her hair is so blond--"
"No, it's red!" snapped Stanton.
With perfect courtesy the lawyer swallowed his mistake. "Oh, excuse me," he said. "I forgot. But with her height--"
"She hasn't any height," groaned Stanton. "I tell you she's little."
"Choose to suit yourself," said the lawyer coolly. He himself had admired Cornelia from afar off.
The next night, to Stanton's mixed feelings of relief and disappointment the "surprise" seemed to consist in the fact that nothing happened at all. Fully until midnight the sense of relief comforted him utterly. But some time after midnight, his hungry mind, like a house-pet robbed of an accustomed meal, began to wake and fret and stalk around ferociously through all the long, empty, aching, early morning hours, searching for something novel to think about.
By supper-time the next evening he was in an irritable mood that made him fairly clutch the special delivery letter out of the postman's hand. It was rather a thin, tantalizing little letter, too. All it said was,
"To-night, Dearest, until one o'clock, in a cabbage-colored gown all shimmery with green and blue and September frost-lights, I'm going to sit up by my white birch-wood fire and read aloud to you. Yes! Honest-Injun! And out of Browning, too. Did you notice your copy was marked? What shall I read to you? Shall it be
"'If I could have that little head of hers
Painted upon a background of pale gold.'
'Shall I sonnet-sing you about myself?
Do I live in a house you would like to see?'
'I am a Painter who cannot paint,
----No end to all I cannot do.
_Yet do one thing at least I can,
Love a man, or hate a man!_'
While I am I, and you are you!'
"Oh, Honey! Won't it be fun? Just you and I, perhaps, in all this Big City, sitting up and thinking about each other. Can you smell the white birch smoke in this letter?"
[Illustration: "Well I'll be hanged," growled Stanton, "if I'm going to be strung by any boy!"]
Almost unconsciously Stanton raised the page to his face. Unmistakably, up from the paper rose the strong, vivid scent--of a briar-wood pipe.
"Well I'll be hanged," growled Stanton, "if I'm going to be strung by any boy!" Out of all proportion the incident irritated him.
But when, the next evening, a perfectly tremendous bunch of yellow jonquils arrived with a penciled line suggesting, "If you'll put these solid gold posies in your window to-morrow morning at eight o'clock, so I'll surely know just which window is yours, I'll look up--when I go past," Stanton most peremptorily ordered the janitor to display the bouquet as ornately as possible along the narrow window-sill of the biggest window that faced the street. Then all through the night he lay dozing and waking intermittently, with a lovely, scared feeling in the pit of his stomach that something really rather exciting was about to happen. By surely half-past seven he rose laboriously from his bed, huddled himself into his black-sheep wrapper and settled himself down as warmly as could be expected, close to the draughty edge of the window.