“Georgiana!” she called to a young girl who had come up the back stairway. “Georgiana Meeker! I’m going to run down and see about the rest of the frappé. Will you come and take charge of the bowl, please?” Some of life’s bitterest moments are also its politest.
Ella did not pause until she was in the kind, if cobwebby, seclusion of the cellar. Good sense told her that she would have to go back to face the music eventually, but, for a few moments, away from all prying eyes, she would nurse and cuddle the hurt little-girl heart of her. Mechanically, like all faithful souls who work while they grieve, she picked up a chunk of ice to replenish the melting supply in the tub.
Two blue serge legs were coming down the narrow stairway. They seemed to be bringing Jim Sheldon with them. He had to duck his head to get through the doorway. “Where are you, Ella Norer, I adore ‘er?”
The little half-dark, wholly-dusty cellar seemed electrically charged with the sheer vitality of his presence. He was coming toward her with both hands out. Nervously, Ella dropped the ice. According to laws immutable, the tendency of all falling objects is to descend in a perpendicular line. The frappé was at the lower end of the perpendicular line. Further, in accordance with another of nature’s laws that no two objects shall occupy the same place at a given time, several quarts of frappé politely slopped out to make way for the ice.
“Oh, Jim!” she said feebly. “I’ve spoiled the frappé. That was ice from the old frog pond.”
He threw back his head and laughed.
“What’s a frog or two between friends, Ellanora?” He ran the words of her name together musically, so that they sounded like a caress.
Together they fished out the ice, and after that, with an immaculate handkerchief, he wiped the spots on her dress and dried her hands comfortably.
Then, quite suddenly, a singular thing happened. James Warren Sheldon, somewhat worldly-wise, wholly capable of taking care of himself, plainly embarrassed, dropped Ella’s hands. With the way of femininity since the world began, Ella immediately became mistress of the situation.
“It seems nice to see you, Jim. We’re all so glad that you took time to come to us. She’s a darling–and so pretty.”
“Isn’t she? And she’s as sweet as she is pretty.” Jim’s temporary discomfiture had vanished. “Poor little girl! Her mother died first, and then her daddy was killed in an auto accident the first time I was in France. When I got back, she seemed to cling to me so–”
SO THAT was the way it happened! Wasn’t that just like kind-hearted Jim? To Ella there came the fleeting vision of her own independent self. No, assuredly, she had not been of the clinging type.
“Ella, I’m wondering if you’ll do something for me. Could you–would it be inconvenient–could I leave her here with you for a few days while I go on a short business trip? She needs mothering so badly; and while you seem a perfect kid to me in most ways, you’ve always seemed motherly, too. Gee! I remember one time when I busted my head and you spilled liniment and tears all over me.” They both laughed, and for a moment Ella gave no thought to the difficult task before her.
Suddenly, Jim caught one of her hands in both of his. “Ella, I didn’t seem to realize what you meant to me–until I got out there–in Flanders! Queer, how everything fell away from me out there but the things that count! I always thought a lot of you, but I supposed it was just a good friendship. When it came to me–so clear–its full meaning–I knew if I lived to get back to you I’d tell you what a mistake I had made, and how much I had always cared.”
The creeping, crawling horror in Ella’s mind twisted around her heart and clutched, biting, at her throat, so that she put her free hand up to it. Not that! Surely not that–when it was too late. It wasn’t worthy of Jim to talk like this! It was an unbearable thing to see him fall from his pedestal of Right and Honor. Love was big, but Love’s ideal was bigger.