Melissa sent word on Monday evening that she thought we had better go round with the subscription list for cushioning the church pews on Tuesday. I sent back word that I thought we had better go on Thursday. I had no particular objection to Tuesday, but Melissa is rather fond of settling things without consulting anyone else, and I don't believe in always letting her have her own way. Melissa is my cousin and we have always been good friends, and I am really very fond of her; but there's no sense in lying down and letting yourself be walked over. We finally compromised on Wednesday.
I always have a feeling of dread when I hear of any new church-project for which money will be needed, because I know perfectly well that Melissa and I will be sent round to collect for it. People say we seem to be able to get more than anybody else; and they appear to think that because Melissa is an unencumbered old maid, and I am an unencumbered widow, we can spare the time without any inconvenience to ourselves. Well, we have been canvassing for building funds, and socials, and suppers for years, but it is needed now; at least, I have had enough of it, and I should think Melissa has, too.
We started out bright and early on Wednesday morning, for Jersey Cove is a big place and we knew we should need the whole day. We had to walk because neither of us owned a horse, and anyway it's more nuisance getting out to open and shut gates than it is worth while. It was a lovely day then, though promising to be hot, and our hearts were as light as could be expected, considering the disagreeable expedition we were on.
I was waiting at my gate for Melissa when she came, and she looked me over with wonder and disapproval. I could see she thought I was a fool to dress up in my second best flowered muslin and my very best hat with the pale pink roses in it to walk about in the heat and dust; but I wasn't. All my experience in canvassing goes to show that the better dressed and better looking you are the more money you'll get—that is, when it's the men you have to tackle, as in this case. If it had been the women, however, I would have put on the oldest and ugliest things, consistent with decency, I had. This was what Melissa had done, as it was, and she did look fearfully prim and dowdy, except for her front hair, which was as soft and fluffy and elaborate as usual. I never could understand how Melissa always got it arranged so beautifully.
Nothing particular happened the first part of the day. Some few growled and wouldn't subscribe anything, but on the whole we did pretty well. If it had been a missionary subscription we should have fared worse; but when it was something touching their own comfort, like cushioning the pews, they came down handsomely. We reached Daniel Wilson's by noon, and had to have dinner there. We didn't eat much, although we were hungry enough—Mary Wilson's cooking is a by-word in Jersey Cove. No wonder Daniel is dyspeptic; but dyspeptic or not, he gave us a big subscription for our cushions and told us we looked younger than ever. Daniel is always very complimentary, and they say Mary is jealous.
When we left the Wilson's Melissa said, with an air of a woman nerving herself to a disagreeable duty:
"I suppose we might as well go to Isaac Appleby's now and get it over."
I agreed with her. I had been dreading that call all day. It isn't a very pleasant thing to go to a man you have recently refused to marry and ask him for money; and Melissa and I were both in that predicament.
Isaac was a well-to-do old bachelor who had never had any notion of getting married until his sister died in the winter. And then, as soon as the spring planting was over, he began to look round for a wife. He came to me first and I said "No" good and hard. I liked Isaac well enough; but I was snug and comfortable, and didn't feel like pulling up my roots and moving into another lot; besides, Isaac's courting seemed to me a shade too business-like. I can't get along without a little romance; it's my nature.
Isaac was disappointed and said so, but intimated that it wasn't crushing and that the next best would do very well. The next best was Melissa, and he proposed to her after the decent interval of a fortnight. Melissa also refused him. I admit I was surprised at this, for I knew Melissa was rather anxious to marry; but she has always been down on Isaac Appleby, from principle, because of a family feud on her mother's side; besides, an old beau of hers, a widower at Kingsbridge, was just beginning to take notice again, and I suspected Melissa had hopes concerning him. Finally, I imagine Melissa did not fancy being second choice.
Whatever her reasons were, she refused poor Isaac, and that finished his matrimonial prospects as far as Jersey Cove was concerned, for there wasn't another eligible woman in it—that is, for a man of Isaac's age. I was the only widow, and the other old maids besides Melissa were all hopelessly old-maiden.
This was all three months ago, and Isaac had been keeping house for himself ever since. Nobody knew much about how he got along, for the Appleby house is half a mile from anywhere, down near the shore at the end of a long lane—the lonesomest place, as I did not fail to remember when I was considering Isaac's offer.
"I heard Jarvis Aldrich say Isaac had got a dog lately," said Melissa, when we finally came in sight of the house—a handsome new one, by the way, put up only ten years ago. "Jarvis said it was an imported breed. I do hope it isn't cross."
I have a mortal horror of dogs, and I followed Melissa into the big farmyard with fear and trembling. We were halfway across the yard when Melissa shrieked:
"Anne, there's the dog!"
There was the dog; and the trouble was that he didn't stay there, but came right down the slope at a steady, business-like trot. He was a bull-dog and big enough to bite a body clean in two, and he was the ugliest thing in dogs I had ever seen.
Melissa and I both lost our heads. We screamed, dropped our parasols, and ran instinctively to the only refuge that was in sight—a ladder leaning against the old Appleby house. I am forty-five and something more than plump, so that climbing ladders is not my favorite form of exercise. But I went up that one with the agility and grace of sixteen. Melissa followed me, and we found ourselves on the roof—fortunately it was a flat one—panting and gasping, but safe, unless that diabolical dog could climb a ladder.
I crept cautiously to the edge and peered over. The beast was sitting on his haunches at the foot of the ladder, and it was quite evident he was not short on time. The gleam in his eye seemed to say:
"I've got you two unprincipled subscription hunters beautifully treed and it's treed you're going to stay. That is what I call satisfying."
I reported the state of the case to Melissa.
"What shall we do?" I asked.
"Do?" said Melissa, snappishly. "Why, stay here till Isaac Appleby comes out and takes that brute away? What else can we do?"
"What if he isn't at home?" I suggested.
"We'll stay here till he comes home. Oh, this is a nice predicament. This is what comes of cushioning churches!"
"It might be worse," I said comfortingly. "Suppose the roof hadn't been flat?"
"Call Isaac," said Melissa shortly.
I didn't fancy calling Isaac, but call him I did, and when that failed to bring him Melissa condescended to call, too; but scream as we might, no Isaac appeared, and that dog sat there and smiled internally.
"It's no use," said Melissa sulkily at last. "Isaac Appleby is dead or away."
Half an hour passed; it seemed as long as a day. The sun just boiled down on that roof and we were nearly melted. We were dreadfully thirsty, and the heat made our heads ache, and I could see my muslin dress fading before my very eyes. As for the roses on my best hat—but that was too harrowing to think about.
Then we saw a welcome sight—Isaac Appleby coming through the yard with a hoe over his shoulder. He had probably been working in his field at the back of the house. I never thought I should have been so glad to see him.
"Isaac, oh, Isaac!" I called joyfully, leaning over as far as I dared.
Isaac looked up in amazement at me and Melissa craning our necks over the edge of the roof. Then he saw the dog and took in the situation. The creature actually grinned.
"Won't you call off your dog and let us get down, Isaac?" I said pleadingly.
Isaac stood and reflected for a moment or two. Then he came slowly forward and, before we realized what he was going to do, he took that ladder down and laid it on the ground.
"Isaac Appleby, what do you mean?" demanded Melissa wrathfully.
Isaac folded his arms and looked up. It would be hard to say which face was the more determined, his or the dog's. But Isaac had the advantage in point of looks, I will say that for him.
"I mean that you two women will stay up on that roof until one of you agrees to marry me," said Isaac solemnly.
"Isaac Appleby, you can't be in earnest?" I cried incredulously. "You couldn't be so mean?"
"I am in earnest. I want a wife, and I am going to have one. You two will stay up there, and Julius Caesar here will watch you until one of you makes up her mind to take me. You can settle it between yourselves, and let me know when you have come to a decision."
And with that Isaac walked jauntily into his new house.
"The man can't mean it!" said Melissa. "He is trying to play a joke on us."
"He does mean it," I said gloomily. "An Appleby never says anything he doesn't mean. He will keep us here until one of us consents to marry him."
"It won't be me, then," said Melissa in a calm sort of rage. "I won't marry him if I have to sit on this roof for the rest of my life. You can take him. It's really you he wants, anyway; he asked you first."
I always knew that rankled with Melissa.
I thought the situation over before I said anything more. We certainly couldn't get off that roof, and if we could, there was Julius Caesar. The place was out of sight of every other house in Jersey Cove, and nobody might come near it for a week. To be sure, when Melissa and I didn't turn up the Covites might get out and search for us; but that wouldn't be for two or three days anyhow.
Melissa had turned her back on me and was sitting with her elbows propped up on her knees, looking gloomily out to sea. I was afraid I couldn't coax her into marrying Isaac. As for me, I hadn't any real objection to marrying him, after all, for if he was short of romance he was good-natured and has a fat bank account; but I hated to be driven into it that way.
"You'd better take him, Melissa," I said entreatingly. "I've had one husband and that is enough."
"More than enough for me, thank you," said Melissa sarcastically.
"Isaac is a fine man and has a lovely house; and you aren't sure the Kingsbridge man really means anything," I went on.
"I would rather," said Melissa, with the same awful calmness, "jump down from this roof and break my neck, or be devoured piecemeal by that fiend down there than marry Isaac Appleby."
It didn't seem worth while to say anything more after that. We sat there in stony silence and the time dragged by. I was hot, hungry, thirsty, cross; and besides, I felt that I was in a ridiculous position, which was worse than all the rest. We could see Isaac sitting in the shade of one of his apple trees in the front orchard comfortably reading a newspaper. I think if he hadn't aggravated me by doing that I'd have given in sooner. But as it was, I was determined to be as stubborn as everybody else. We were four obstinate creatures—Isaac and Melissa and Julius Caesar and I.
At four o'clock Isaac got up and went into the house; in a few minutes he came out again with a basket in one hand and a ball of cord in the other.
"I don't intend to starve you, of course, ladies," he said politely, "I will throw this ball up to you and you can then draw up the basket."
I caught the ball, for Melissa never turned her head. I would have preferred to be scornful, too, and reject the food altogether; but I was so dreadfully thirsty that I put my pride in my pocket and hauled the basket up. Besides, I thought it might enable us to hold out until some loophole of escape presented itself.
Isaac went back into the house and I unpacked the basket. There was a bottle of milk, some bread and butter, and a pie. Melissa wouldn't take a morsel of the food, but she was so thirsty she had to take a drink of milk.
She tried to lift her veil—and something caught; Melissa gave it a savage twitch, and off came veil and hat—and all her front hair!
You never saw such a sight. I'd always suspected Melissa wore a false front, but I'd never had any proof before.
Melissa pinned on her hair again and put on her hat and drank the milk, all without a word; but she was purple. I felt sorry for her.
And I felt sorry for Isaac when I tried to eat that bread. It was sour and dreadful. As for the pie, it was hopeless. I tasted it, and then threw it down to Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar, not being over particular, ate it up. I thought perhaps it would kill him, for anything might come of eating such a concoction. That pie was a strong argument for Isaac. I thought a man who had to live on such cookery did indeed need a wife and might be pardoned for taking desperate measures to get one. I was dreadfully tired of broiling on the roof anyhow.
But it was the thunderstorm that decided me. When I saw it coming up, black and quick, from the northwest, I gave in at once. I had endured a good deal and was prepared to endure more; but I had paid ten dollars for my hat and I was not going to have it ruined by a thunderstorm. I called to Isaac and out he came.
"If you will let us down and promise to dispose of that dog before I come here I will marry you, Isaac," I said, "but I'll make you sorry for it afterwards, though."
"I'll take the risk of that, Anne," he said; "and, of course, I'll sell the dog. I won't need him when I have you."
Isaac meant to be complimentary, though you mightn't have thought so if you had seen the face of that dog.
Isaac ordered Julius Caesar away and put up the ladder, and turned his back, real considerately, while we climbed down. We had to go in his house and stay till the shower was over. I didn't forget the object of our call and I produced our subscription list at once.
"How much have you got?" asked Isaac.
"Seventy dollars and we want a hundred and fifty," I said.
"You may put me down for the remaining eighty, then," said Isaac calmly.
The Applebys are never mean where money is concerned, I must say.
Isaac offered to drive us home when it cleared up, but I said "No." I wanted to settle Melissa before she got a chance to talk.
On the way home I said to her:
"I hope you won't mention this to anyone, Melissa. I don't mind marrying Isaac, but I don't want people to know how it came about."
"Oh, I won't say anything about it," said Melissa, laughing a little disagreeably.
"Because," I said, to clinch the matter, looking significantly at her front hair as I said it, "I have something to tell, too."
Melissa will hold her tongue.