MOONSTONE again, in the year 1909. The Methodists are giving an ice-cream sociable in the grove about the new court-house. It is a warm summer night of full moon. The paper lanterns which hang among the trees are foolish toys, only dimming, in little lurid circles, the great softness of the lunar light that floods the blue heavens and the high plateau. To the east the sand hills shine white as of old, but the empire of the sand is gradually diminishing. The grass grows thicker over the dunes than it used to, and the streets of the town are harder and firmer than they were twenty-five years ago. The old inhabitants will tell you that sandstorms are infrequent now, that the wind blows less persistently in the spring and plays a milder tune. Cultivation has modified the soil and the climate, as it modifies human life.
The people seated about under the cottonwoods are much smarter than the Methodists we used to know. The interior of the new Methodist Church looks like a theater, with a sloping floor, and as the congregation proudly say, "opera chairs." The matrons who attend to serving the refreshments to-night look younger for their years than did the women of Mrs. Kronborg's time, and the children all look like city children. The little boys wear "Buster Browns" and the little girls Russian blouses. The country child, in made-overs and cut-downs, seems to have vanished from the face of the earth.
At one of the tables, with her Dutch-cut twin boys, sits a fair-haired, dimpled matron who was once Lily Fisher. Her husband is president of the new bank, and she "goes East for her summers," a practice which causes envy and discontent among her neighbors. The twins are well-behaved children, biddable, meek, neat about their clothes, and always mindful of the proprieties they have learned at summer hotels. While they are eating their icecream and trying not to twist the spoon in their mouths, a little shriek of laughter breaks from an adjacent table. The twins look up. There sits a spry little old spinster whom they know well. She has a long chin, a long nose, and she is dressed like a young girl, with a pink sash and a lace garden hat with pink rosebuds. She is surrounded by a crowd of boys,—loose and lanky, short and thick,—who are joking with her roughly, but not unkindly.
"Mamma," one of the twins comes out in a shrill treble, "why is Tillie Kronborg always talking about a thousand dollars?"
The boys, hearing this question, break into a roar of laughter, the women titter behind their paper napkins, and even from Tillie there is a little shriek of appreciation. The observing child's remark had made every one suddenly realize that Tillie never stopped talking about that particular sum of money. In the spring, when she went to buy early strawberries, and was told that they were thirty cents a box, she was sure to remind the grocer that though her name was Kronborg she didn't get a thousand dollars a night. In the autumn, when she went to buy her coal for the winter, she expressed amazement at the price quoted her, and told the dealer he must have got her mixed up with her niece to think she could pay such a sum. When she was making her Christmas presents, she never failed to ask the women who came into her shop what you COULD make for anybody who got a thousand dollars a night. When the Denver papers announced that Thea Kronborg had married Frederick Ottenburg, the head of the Brewers' Trust, Moonstone people expected that Tillie's vain-gloriousness would take another form. But Tillie had hoped that Thea would marry a title, and she did not boast much about Ottenburg,—at least not until after her memorable trip to Kansas City to hear Thea sing.
Tillie is the last Kronborg left in Moonstone. She lives alone in a little house with a green yard, and keeps a fancywork and millinery store. Her business methods are informal, and she would never come out even at the end of the year, if she did not receive a draft for a good round sum from her niece at Christmas time. The arrival of this draft always renews the discussion as to what Thea would do for her aunt if she really did the right thing. Most of the Moonstone people think Thea ought to take Tillie to New York and keep her as a companion. While they are feeling sorry for Tillie because she does not live at the Plaza, Tillie is trying not to hurt their feelings by showing too plainly how much she realizes the superiority of her position. She tries to be modest when she complains to the postmaster that her New York paper is more than three days late. It means enough, surely, on the face of it, that she is the only person in Moonstone who takes a New York paper or who has any reason for taking one. A foolish young girl, Tillie lived in the splendid sorrows of "Wanda" and "Strathmore"; a foolish old girl, she lives in her niece's triumphs. As she often says, she just missed going on the stage herself.
That night after the sociable, as Tillie tripped home with a crowd of noisy boys and girls, she was perhaps a shade troubled. The twin's question rather lingered in her ears. Did she, perhaps, insist too much on that thousand dollars? Surely, people didn't for a minute think it was the money she cared about? As for that, Tillie tossed her head, she didn't care a rap. They must understand that this money was different.
When the laughing little group that brought her home had gone weaving down the sidewalk through the leafy shadows and had disappeared, Tillie brought out a rocking chair and sat down on her porch. On glorious, soft summer nights like this, when the moon is opulent and full, the day submerged and forgotten, she loves to sit there behind her rose-vine and let her fancy wander where it will. If you chanced to be passing down that Moonstone street and saw that alert white figure rocking there behind the screen of roses and lingering late into the night, you might feel sorry for her, and how mistaken you would be! Tillie lives in a little magic world, full of secret satisfactions. Thea Kronborg has given much noble pleasure to a world that needs all it can get, but to no individual has she given more than to her queer old aunt in Moonstone. The legend of Kronborg, the artist, fills Tillie's life; she feels rich and exalted in it. What delightful things happen in her mind as she sits there rocking! She goes back to those early days of sand and sun, when Thea was a child and Tillie was herself, so it seems to her, "young." When she used to hurry to church to hear Mr. Kronborg's wonderful sermons, and when Thea used to stand up by the organ of a bright Sunday morning and sing "Come, Ye Disconsolate." Or she thinks about that wonderful time when the Metropolitan Opera Company sang a week's engagement in Kansas City, and Thea sent for her and had her stay with her at the Coates House and go to every performance at Convention Hall. Thea let Tillie go through her costume trunks and try on her wigs and jewels. And the kindness of Mr. Ottenburg! When Thea dined in her own room, he went down to dinner with Tillie, and never looked bored or absent-minded when she chattered. He took her to the hall the first time Thea sang there, and sat in the box with her and helped her through "Lohengrin." After the first act, when Tillie turned tearful eyes to him and burst out, "I don't care, she always seemed grand like that, even when she was a girl. I expect I'm crazy, but she just seems to me full of all them old times!"—Ottenburg was so sympathetic and patted her hand and said, "But that's just what she is, full of the old times, and you are a wise woman to see it." Yes, he said that to her. Tillie often wondered how she had been able to bear it when Thea came down the stairs in the wedding robe embroidered in silver, with a train so long it took six women to carry it.
Tillie had lived fifty-odd years for that week, but she got it, and no miracle was ever more miraculous than that. When she used to be working in the fields on her father's Minnesota farm, she couldn't help believing that she would some day have to do with the "wonderful," though her chances for it had then looked so slender.
The morning after the sociable, Tillie, curled up in bed, was roused by the rattle of the milk cart down the street. Then a neighbor boy came down the sidewalk outside her window, singing "Casey Jones" as if he hadn't a care in the world. By this time Tillie was wide awake. The twin's question, and the subsequent laughter, came back with a faint twinge. Tillie knew she was short-sighted about facts, but this time—Why, there were her scrapbooks, full of newspaper and magazine articles about Thea, and half-tone cuts, snap-shots of her on land and sea, and photographs of her in all her parts. There, in her parlor, was the phonograph that had come from Mr. Ottenburg last June, on Thea's birthday; she had only to go in there and turn it on, and let Thea speak for herself. Tillie finished brushing her white hair and laughed as she gave it a smart turn and brought it into her usual French twist. If Moonstone doubted, she had evidence enough: in black and white, in figures and photographs, evidence in hair lines on metal disks. For one who had so often seen two and two as making six, who had so often stretched a point, added a touch, in the good game of trying to make the world brighter than it is, there was positive bliss in having such deep foundations of support. She need never tremble in secret lest she might sometime stretch a point in Thea's favor.—Oh, the comfort, to a soul too zealous, of having at last a rose so red it could not be further painted, a lily so truly auriferous that no amount of gilding could exceed the fact!
Tillie hurried from her bedroom, threw open the doors and windows, and let the morning breeze blow through her little house.
In two minutes a cob fire was roaring in her kitchen stove, in five she had set the table. At her household work Tillie was always bursting out with shrill snatches of song, and as suddenly stopping, right in the middle of a phrase, as if she had been struck dumb. She emerged upon the back porch with one of these bursts, and bent down to get her butter and cream out of the ice-box. The cat was purring on the bench and the morning-glories were thrusting their purple trumpets in through the lattice-work in a friendly way. They reminded Tillie that while she was waiting for the coffee to boil she could get some flowers for her breakfast table. She looked out uncertainly at a bush of sweet-briar that grew at the edge of her yard, off across the long grass and the tomato vines. The front porch, to be sure, was dripping with crimson ramblers that ought to be cut for the good of the vines; but never the rose in the hand for Tillie! She caught up the kitchen shears and off she dashed through grass and drenching dew. Snip, snip; the short-stemmed sweet-briars, salmon-pink and golden-hearted, with their unique and inimitable woody perfume, fell into her apron.
After she put the eggs and toast on the table, Tillie took last Sunday's New York paper from the rack beside the cupboard and sat down, with it for company. In the Sunday paper there was always a page about singers, even in summer, and that week the musical page began with a sympathetic account of Madame Kronborg's first performance of ISOLDE in London. At the end of the notice, there was a short paragraph about her having sung for the King at Buckingham Palace and having been presented with a jewel by His Majesty.
Singing for the King; but Goodness! she was always doing things like that! Tillie tossed her head. All through breakfast she kept sticking her sharp nose down into the glass of sweet-briar, with the old incredible lightness of heart, like a child's balloon tugging at its string. She had always insisted, against all evidence, that life was full of fairy tales, and it was! She had been feeling a little down, perhaps, and Thea had answered her, from so far. From a common person, now, if you were troubled, you might get a letter. But Thea almost never wrote letters. She answered every one, friends and foes alike, in one way, her own way, her only way. Once more Tillie has to remind herself that it is all true, and is not something she has "made up." Like all romancers, she is a little terrified at seeing one of her wildest conceits admitted by the hardheaded world. If our dream comes true, we are almost afraid to believe it; for that is the best of all good fortune, and nothing better can happen to any of us.
When the people on Sylvester Street tire of Tillie's stories, she goes over to the east part of town, where her legends are always welcome. The humbler people of Moonstone still live there. The same little houses sit under the cottonwoods; the men smoke their pipes in the front doorways, and the women do their washing in the back yard. The older women remember Thea, and how she used to come kicking her express wagon along the sidewalk, steering by the tongue and holding Thor in her lap. Not much happens in that part of town, and the people have long memories. A boy grew up on one of those streets who went to Omaha and built up a great business, and is now very rich. Moonstone people always speak of him and Thea together, as examples of Moonstone enterprise. They do, however, talk oftener of Thea. A voice has even a wider appeal than a fortune. It is the one gift that all creatures would possess if they could. Dreary Maggie Evans, dead nearly twenty years, is still remembered because Thea sang at her funeral "after she had studied in Chicago."
However much they may smile at her, the old inhabitants would miss Tillie. Her stories give them something to talk about and to conjecture about, cut off as they are from the restless currents of the world. The many naked little sandbars which lie between Venice and the mainland, in the seemingly stagnant water of the lagoons, are made habitable and wholesome only because, every night, a foot and a half of tide creeps in from the sea and winds its fresh brine up through all that network of shining waterways. So, into all the little settlements of quiet people, tidings of what their boys and girls are doing in the world bring real refreshment; bring to the old, memories, and to the young, dreams.