Jumping to his feet, the Doctor stood staring wildly from Stanton's amazed face to the perfectly calm, perfectly accustomed air of poise that characterized every movement of the pink-shrouded visitor. The amazement in fact never wavered for a second from Stanton's blush-red visage, nor the supreme serenity from the lady's whole attitude. But across the Doctor's startled features a fearful, outraged consciousness of having been deceived, warred mightily with a consciousness of unutterable mirth.
Advancing toward the fireplace with a rather slow-footed, hesitating gait, the little visitor's attention focused suddenly on the cluttered table and she cried out with unmistakable delight. "Why, what are you people doing with all my letters and things?"
Then climbing up on the sturdy brass fender, she thrust her pink, impenetrable features right into the scared, pallid face of the shabby old clock and announced pointedly, "It's almost half-past seven. And I can stay till just eight o'clock!"
When she turned around again the Doctor was gone.
With a tiny shrug of her shoulders, she settled herself down then in a big, high-backed chair before the fire and stretched out her overshoed toes to the shining edge of the fender. As far as any apparent self-consciousness was concerned, she might just as well have been all alone in the room.
Convulsed with amusement, yet almost paralyzed by a certain stubborn, dumb sort of embarrassment, nothing on earth could have forced Stanton into making even an indefinite speech to the girl until she had made at least one perfectly definite and reasonably illuminating sort of speech to him. Biting his grinning lips into as straight a line as possible, he gathered up the scattered pages of the evening paper and attacked them furiously with scowling eyes.
After a really dreadful interim of silence, the mysterious little visitor rose in a gloomy, discouraged kind of way, and climbing up again on the narrow brass fender, peered once more into the face of the clock.
"It's twenty minutes of eight, now," she announced. Into her voice crept for the first time the faintest perceptible suggestion of a tremor. "It's twenty minutes of eight--now--and I've got to leave here exactly at eight. Twenty minutes is a rather--a rather stingy little bit out of a whole--lifetime," she added falteringly.
Then, and then only did Stanton's nervousness break forth suddenly into one wild, uproarious laugh that seemed to light up the whole dark, ominous room as though the gray, sulky, smoldering hearth-fire itself had exploded into iridescent flame. Chasing close behind the musical contagion of his deep guffaws followed the softer, gentler giggle of the dainty pink-veiled lady.
By the time they had both finished laughing it was fully quarter of eight.
"But you see it was just this way," explained the pleasant little voice--all alto notes again. Cautiously a slim, unringed hand burrowed out from the somber folds of the big cloak, and raised the pink mouth-mumbling veil as much as half an inch above the red-lipped speech line. "You see it was just this way. You paid me a lot of money--all in advance--for a six weeks' special edition de luxe Love-Letter Serial. And I spent your money the day I got it; and worse than that I owed it--long before I even got it! And worst of all, I've got a chance now to go home to-morrow for all the rest of the winter. No, I don't mean that exactly. I mean I've found a chance to go up to Vermont and have all my expenses paid--just for reading aloud every day to a lady who isn't so awfully deaf. But you see I still owe you a week's subscription--and I can't refund you the money because I haven't got it. And it happens that I can't run a fancy love-letter business from the special house that I'm going to. There aren't enough resources there--and all that. So I thought that perhaps--perhaps--considering how much you've been teasing and teasing to know who I was--I thought that perhaps if I came here this evening and let you really see me--that maybe, you know--maybe, not positively, but just _maybe_--you'd be willing to call that equivalent to one week's subscription. _Would you?_"
In the sharp eagerness of her question she turned her shrouded face full-view to Stanton's curious gaze, and he saw the little nervous, mischievous twitch of her lips at the edge of her masking pink veil resolve itself suddenly into a whimper of real pain. Yet so vivid were the lips, so blissfully, youthfully, lusciously carmine, that every single, individual statement she made seemed only like a festive little announcement printed in red ink.
"I guess I'm not a very--good business manager," faltered the red-lipped voice with incongruous pathos. "Indeed I know I'm not because--well because--the Serial-Letter Co. has 'gone broke! Bankrupt', is it, that you really say?"
With a little mockingly playful imitation of a stride she walked the first two fingers of her right hand across the surface of the table to Stanton's discarded supper dishes.
"Oh, please may I have that piece of cold toast?" she asked plaintively. No professional actress on the stage could have spoken the words more deliciously. Even to the actual crunching of the toast in her little shining white teeth, she sought to illustrate as fantastically as possible the ultimate misery of a bankrupt person starving for cold toast.
Stanton's spontaneous laughter attested his full appreciation of her mimicry.
"But I tell you the Serial-Letter Co. _has_ 'gone broke'!" she persisted a trifle wistfully. "I guess--I guess it takes a man to really run a business with any sort of financial success, 'cause you see a man never puts anything except his head into his business. And of course if you only put your head into it, then you go right along giving always just a little wee bit less than 'value received'--and so you can't help, sir, making a profit. Why people would think you were plain, stark crazy if you gave them even one more pair of poor rubber boots than they'd paid for. But a woman! Well, you see my little business was a sort of a scheme to sell sympathy--perfectly good sympathy, you know--but to sell it to people who really needed it, instead of giving it away to people who didn't care anything about it at all. And you have to run that sort of business almost entirely with your heart--and you wouldn't feel decent at all, unless you delivered to everybody just a little tiny bit more sympathy than he paid for. Otherwise, you see you wouldn't be delivering perfectly good sympathy. So that's why--you understand now--that's why I had to send you my very own woolly blanket-wrapper, and my very own silver porringer, and my very own sling-shot that I fight city cats with,--because, you see, I had to use every single cent of your money right away to pay for the things that I'd already bought for other people."
"For other people?" quizzed Stanton a bit resentfully.
"Oh, yes," acknowledged the girl; "for several other people." Then, "Did you like the idea of the 'Rheumatic Nights Entertainment'?" she asked quite abruptly.
"Did I like it?" cried Stanton. "Did I _like_ it?"
With a little shrugging air of apology the girl straightened up very stiffly in her chair.
"Of course it wasn't exactly an original idea," she explained contritely. "That is, I mean not original for you. You see, it's really a little club of mine--a little subscription club of rheumatic people who can't sleep; and I go every night in the week, an hour to each one of them. There are only three, you know. There's a youngish lady in Boston, and a very, very old gentleman out in Brookline, and the tiniest sort of a poor little sick girl in Cambridge. Sometimes I turn up just at supper-time and jolly them along a bit with their gruels. Sometimes I don't get around till ten or eleven o'clock in the great boo-black dark. From two to three in the morning seems to be the cruelest, grayest, coldest time for the little girl in Cambridge.... And I play the banjo decently well, you know, and sing more or less--and tell stories, or read aloud; and I most always go dressed up in some sort of a fancy costume 'cause I can't seem to find any other thing to do that astonishes sick people so much and makes them sit up so bravely and look so shiny. And really, it isn't such dreadfully hard work to do, because everything fits together so well. The short skirts, for instance, that turn me into such a jolly prattling great-grandchild for the poor old gentleman, make me just a perfectly rational, contemporaneous-looking play-mate for the small Cambridge girl. I'm so very, very little!"
"Only, of course," she finished wryly; "only, of course, it costs such a horrid big lot for costumes and carriages and things. That's what's 'busted' me, as the boys say. And then, of course, I'm most dreadfully sleepy all the day times when I ought to be writing nice things for my Serial-Letter Co. business. And then one day last week--" the vivid red lips twisted oddly at one corner. "One night last week they sent me word from Cambridge that the little, little girl was going to die--and was calling and calling for the 'Gray-Plush Squirrel Lady'. So I hired a big gray squirrel coat from a furrier whom I know, and I ripped up my muff and made me the very best sort of a hot, gray, smothery face that I could--and I went out to Cambridge and sat three hours on the footboard of a bed, cracking jokes--and nuts--to beguile a little child's death-pain. And somehow it broke my heart--or my spirit--or something. Somehow I think I could have stood it better with my own skin face! Anyway the little girl doesn't need me any more. Anyway, it doesn't matter if someone did need me!... I tell you I'm 'broke'! I tell you I haven't got one single solitary more thing to give! It isn't just my pocket-book that's empty: it's my head that's spent, too! It's my heart that's altogether stripped! _And I'm going to run away! Yes, I am!_"
Jumping to her feet she stood there for an instant all out of breath, as though just the mere fancy thought of running away had almost exhausted her. Then suddenly she began to laugh.
"I'm so tired of making up things," she confessed; "why, I'm so tired of making up grandfathers, I'm so tired of making up pirates, I'm so tired of making-up lovers--that I actually cherish the bill collector as the only real, genuine acquaintance whom I have in Boston. Certainly there's no slightest trace of pretence about him!... Excuse me for being so flippant," she added soberly, "but you see I haven't got any sympathy left even for myself."
"But for heaven's sake!" cried Stanton, "why don't you let somebody help you? Why don't you let me--"
"Oh, you _can_ help me!" cried the little red-lipped voice excitedly. "Oh, yes, indeed you can help me! That's why I came here this evening. You see I've settled up now with every one of my creditors except you and the youngish Boston lady, and I'm on my way to her house now. We're reading Oriental Fairy stories together. Truly I think she'll be very glad indeed to release me from my contract when I offer her my coral beads instead, because they are dreadfully nice beads, my real, unpretended grandfather carved them for me himself.... But how can I settle with you? I haven't got anything left to settle with, and it might be months and months before I could refund the actual cash money. So wouldn't you--couldn't you please call my coming here this evening an equivalent to one week's subscription?"
[Illustration: "Oh! Don't I look--gorgeous!" she stammered]
Wriggling out of the cloak and veil that wrapped her like a chrysalis she emerged suddenly a glimmering, shimmering little oriental figure of satin and silver and haunting sandalwood--a veritable little incandescent rainbow of spangled moonlight and flaming scarlet and dark purple shadows. Great, heavy, jet-black curls caught back from her small piquant face by a blazing rhinestone fillet,--cheeks just a tiny bit over-tinted with rouge and excitement,--big, red-brown eyes packed full of high lights like a startled fawn's,--bold in the utter security of her masquerade, yet scared almost to death by the persistent underlying heart-thump of her unescapable self-consciousness,--altogether as tantalizing, altogether as unreal, as a vision out of the Arabian Nights, she stood there staring quizzically at Stanton.
"_Would_ you call it--an--equivalent? _Would_ you?" she asked nervously.
Then pirouetting over to the largest mirror in sight she began to smooth and twist her silken sash into place. Somewhere at wrist or ankle twittered the jingle of innumerable bangles.
"Oh! Don't I look--gorgeous!" she stammered. "O--h--h!"