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Chapter XIX--Two Surprises
 The week before Christmas was packed tight with hurry, tired bones, fun, and, for me, a short worry and two surprises, one of which made my disquiet. And the week after held indigestion, more tired bones, more fun, and one surprise. And they each held a mysterious happening which no one could explain. The second of these being so serious that my stories of hearing things at night were at last taken seriously. Even the rappings which they had all heard had not made them see that anything out of the ordinary was really happening, until the after-Christmas affair convinced them. Feeling this, I had given up speaking of what occurred to bother me. It was like telling of the huge fish you HONESTLY really almost landed, and then having the listener say: “Oh yes. But I suppose he got away?” and--smile. It shut you up. It was that way with my affairs.
After Evelyn began to say, “How many brigands slept on the balcony last night, Natalie?” or, “I heard strange noises at five this morning. It might have been the milkman, but Natalie seems to think it was a thug who came in to steal her flashlight!”
Perhaps I would say: “It was gone!” and then everyone would laugh, for of course they thought I had mislaid it; and naturally thought so, since a real thief is rarely satisfied with one flashlight costing a dollar and forty cents. Just as I decided to stop assuring them that something was happening (it seemed futile to keep up--they wouldn’t believe me) Evelyn stopped teasing me. I think Doctor Vance’s saying I wasn’t especially well made that. And I was glad to have it cease. It wasn’t a joke to me!
As I said, the week before Christmas was a hurried time. Aunt, Evelyn, and Amy gave lots of people presents and I helped them wrap them up. It was great fun. The red and green tissues, the beautiful ribbons and the cunning stickers made things so pretty that you never thought of the bother. But I will acknowledge that I tired of the flavour of the stickers, which was assertive and clung. I believe any stationery house would make a fortune if they manufactured Christmas seals that tasted as nice as they look.
I said so to S. K. one afternoon a few days before Christmas. He had come up and we were in the library. Amy was playing the victrola, between going to the hall to inspect the packages which kept arriving so steadily; Evelyn was writing thank you notes for things she hadn’t received! She said she always did, because it saved the bother after Christmas, when parties were scheduled for almost every minute; and that it was quite simple since all you had to do was to say: “Your beautiful gift means so much to me, and I shall always treasure it.” But Amy told me one year Aunt Penelope mailed these before Evelyn knew it and a lot of the thanked people hadn’t come across. Naturally it was awkward and took a great deal of talented explaining.
But, to go back to that afternoon. S. K. said: “That’s one thing you haven’t tried--glue.” And I knew he meant putting it in the bracelet box. He smiled at me in a teasing way after that, for even he didn’t take me seriously then.
“No,” I answered, “but I will, or something better for leaving a trail. It’s a good idea.” I was really taken with it and decided upon red paint, as I tied up a set of bridge scores that Aunt Penelope was going to send to a cousin of hers who lives miles from nowhere on a Western farm.
Then I attacked a lot of nut bowls and crackers that Evelyn had got at a bargain from a gift shop. Amy tried to crack a peanut with the crackers, and even its fragile shell was not dented, but Evelyn explained that “It was the thought” that counted. Personally, I decided that the kind of thoughts one would have on using those things would count against you--if Heaven’s Gate Keeper were listening, but I didn’t say so.
“Got sixteen of those last Christmas,” said S. K.
“I had planned to give you one!” I gasped, and I really did it well.
“My dear,” he said, growing quite excited, “you know I was joking. I should love having you give me one! I’m simply a stupid fool, that’s all and----” And then I laughed, and Evelyn, who had stopped writing to listen, did too, for she had helped me get my present for S. K.
“Come here, you humbug!” he ordered. I came. He reached up and pulled me down on the lounge beside him, very hard. “What’ll I do to her, Miss Evelyn?” he asked, as he frowned down on me.
Evelyn said I was hopeless and that she thought nothing short of arsenic, and a large dose of that, would have any effect.
“Oh, well, we’ll let her live a small while longer,” he temporized, and I slipped my hand in his because I am always a little sorry when I tease him, although it is fun to do. “I’ll tell you,” he went on. “We’ll have bread and butter, and that ONLY, with tea for a month.”
“Then I won’t come down and have tea with you,” I replied, “for I can get that kind of a hand-out here.”
“So, you slangy young thing, I am loved for my food?” he asked. He looked quizzical, but I thought he wondered, and of course I told him I loved him for himself. Evelyn was amused, which was silly of her, because it was nothing to be flippant about.
“Shall I leave the room?” she asked, in an attempt to be funny. And then, for the first time, I realized that S. K. was not so much older than I, after all, and that perhaps he, as well as other people, might not understand. He had seemed like Uncle Frank, or Bradly-dear; like someone who belonged to me, and to whom I belonged. I had adopted him into the family-side of my heart because he had been so good to me, and of course for the same reason I loved him. But I wondered then, whether my saying so sounded silly, and it made me grow pink and look down.
But S. K. helped me out as he always does.
“No,” he answered, and I felt that he was looking at me and in a very kind way, “that is not the kind of love Nat means. Hers has a sort of small girl, open-air, baseball flavour that is attractive, but--not right for a flirtation. When she learns the other sort, you may leave the room--and quickly, please!”
Evelyn laughed, and went on scribbling. I could see that her remark had been idle, and that she thought S. K.’s was too, but I looked up. S. K. was looking down at me and I felt frightened and very happy, and quite hot but a little chilly; and I began, right then, to know that I did care a great, great deal for S. K. and that--he cared for me.
I didn’t need the thing he blurted out in a whisper, to be sure. For his eyes had said it. What sounded as if it were shaken from him was: “My dearest?” and it came as a question, and after it he bit his lips, grew slowly red and looked away. I knew he was sorry he had spoken, and I was sorry too, for it frightened me, and because I did not know what to do.
I got up and began to wrap up Christmas things and S. K. did not watch me as he usually does, but looked into the fire.
“Thought you were going to punish her,” said Evelyn in that level voice which people use when they’re writing hard or playing the piano softly.
“Decided it was futile,” he answered; and I saw that he was upset too, for he spoke stiffly. And then, after refusing tea and making a light mention of an engagement, he left. And I went on wrapping up packages, but my hands shook.
“Why didn’t you see him out?” Evelyn asked.
I replied that Ito was in the hall and that I didn’t see any reason for doing so.
Then Amy came in and said that Herbert was coming, and that meant that she and I had to get out. For ever since that afternoon that I bumped into him while attempting to walk, he and Evelyn have been discussing inner draperies and how to keep cooks, and the right proportion for a rent, and where to live, for they got engaged that day. Amy told me about it. She said it was dramatic and exceedingly interesting, but that they ordered her off just when she most wanted to stay.
It seemed he bolted in the room, and two feet from Evelyn paused. Amy said he was absolutely white and spoke in a deep, shaken voice. She really described it beautifully. He said: “You have been ill!”
And she said: “Oh, Herbert,” and began to cry. Then she stretched a hand out to him, and he put his arms around her and said: “My darling!” Amy, who had been sitting in a high-backed Italian chair, naturally got up to look over it, and then Evelyn ordered her off. She whispered: “Please, Amy--go----” and Amy felt that she had to. But she was annoyed at Evelyn, for she wasn’t bothering anyone, and she said it was better than movies or the theatre, for she knew the principal characters, and she said that they were acting wonderfully.
But, to go back; after I left them that afternoon I went to my room. Amy had to do some telephoning and stopped outside of the library door to do it. She said she liked that telephone better, but I think she did it because it annoys Evelyn. Of course the most loving sisters occasionally positively work to think up ways of annoying one another; it belongs to them just as much as does taking each other’s clothes, or borrowing hats.
In my room I sat down by the window and I did not light the lights. . . . I wanted to think and in the half-light it seemed easier for the sort of reverie in which I was going to indulge. For, if you can understand it, I was frightened. I loved S. K., I knew that; but I didn’t want to plan a house as Evelyn and Herbert were and to have people go off to leave us alone to do it. Sometimes Herbert kisses Evelyn when they are alone, I am quite sure of it, for I heard Evelyn say: “Don’t, dear--someone is coming,” as I came in one day. And Amy assured me that that was a part of being engaged. I can’t quite explain, because I am stupid about making words carry my thoughts, but at that moment I very much wanted to be back in Queensburg, playing ball, walking, or riding. I wanted Willy to say, “Come out and play catch, Nat!” and not to be worried about things that loomed ahead, things that I was afraid must come before I was ready for them. . . . But--curiously, with all that fear, I had that happy but sad, and lovely but hurting sensation that neither Bradly-dear nor Uncle Frank had ev............
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