They came in through the corral gate before any of the other motor tourists had appeared—and they stupidly halted to watch a bear, a large, black, adipose and extremely unchained bear, stalk along the line of cars, sniff, cock an ear at the Gomez, lumber up on its running-board, and bundle into the seat. His stern filled the space between side and top, and he was to be heard snuffing.
"Oh! Look! Milt! Left box of candy on seat—— Oh, please drive him away!"
"Frighten him away. Aren't animals afraid human eye——"
"Not in this park. Guns forbidden. Animals protected by U. S. Army, President, Congress, Supreme Court, Department of Interior, Monroe Doctrine, W. C. T. U. But I'll try—cautiously."
"Don't you want me think you're hero?"
"Ye-es, providin' I don't have to go and be one."
They edged toward the car. The bear flapped his hind legs, looked out at the intruders, said "Oofflll!" and returned to the candy.
"Shoo!" Milt answered politely.
From his own bug, beside the Gomez, Milt got a tool kit, and with considerable brilliance as a pitcher he sent a series of wrenches at the agitated stern of the bear. They offended the dignity of the ward of the Government. He finished the cover and ribbons of the candy box, and started for Milt ... who proceeded with haste toward Claire ... who was already at the gate.
Lady Vere de Vere, cat of a thousand battles, gave one frightful squawl, shot from Milt's shoulder and at the bear, claws out, fur electric. The bear carelessly batted once with its paw, and the cat sailed into the air. The satisfied bear strolled to the fence, shinned up it and over.
"Good old Vere! That wallop must of darn near stunned her, though!" Milt laughed to Claire, as they trotted back into the corral. The cat did not move, as they came up; did not give the gallant "Mrwr" with which she had saluted Milt on lonely morning after morning of forlorn driving behind the Gomez. He picked Vere up.
"She's—she's dead," he said. He was crying.
"Oh, Milt—— Last night you said Vere was all the family you had. You have the Boltwoods, now!"
She did not touch his hand, nor did they speak as they walked soberly to the far side of the corral, and buried Lady Vere de Vere. At breakfast they talked of the coming day's run, from the canyon out of the Park, and northward. But they had the queer, quick casualness of intimates.
* * * * *
It was at breakfast that her father heard one Milt Daggett address the daughter of the Boltwoods as "Claire." The father was surprised into clearing his throat, and attacking his oatmeal with a zealousness unnatural in a man who regarded breakfast-foods as moral rather than interesting.
While he was lighting a cigar, and Claire was paying the bill, Mr. Boltwood stalked Milt, cleared his throat all over again, and said, "Nice morning."
It was the first time the two men had talked unchaperoned by Claire.
"Yes. We ought to have a good run, sir." The "sir" came hard. The historian puts forth a theory that Milt had got it out of fiction. "We might go up over Mount Washburn. Take us up to ten thousand feet."
"Uh, you said—didn't Miss Boltwood tell me that you are going to Seattle, too?"
"Friends there, no doubt?"
Milt grinned irresistibly. "Not a friend. But I'm going to make 'em. I'm going to take up engineering, and some French, I guess, at the university there."
"Yes. Been too limited in my ambition. Don't see why I shouldn't get out and build railroads and power plants and roads—Siberia, Africa, all sorts of interesting places."
"Quite right. Quite right. Uh, ah, I, oh, I—— Have you seen Miss Boltwood?"
"I saw Miss Boltwood in the office."
"Oh yes. Quite so. Uh—ah, here she is."
When the Gomez had started, Mr. Boltwood skirmished, "This young man—— Do you think you better let him call you by your Christian name?"
"Why not? I call him 'Milt.' 'Mr. Daggett' is too long a handle to use when a man is constantly rescuing you from the perils of the deep or hoboes or bears or something. Oh, I haven't told you. Poor old Milt, his cat was killed——"
"Yes, yes, dolly, you may tell me about that in due time, but let's stick to this social problem for a moment. Do you think you ought to be too intimate with him?"
"He's only too self-respecting. He wouldn't take advantage——"
"I'm quite aware of that. I'm not speaking on your behalf, but on his. I'm sure he's a very amiable chap, and ambitious. In fact—— Did you know that he has saved up money to attend a university?"
"When did he tell you that? How long has he been planning—— I thought that I——"
"Just this morning; just now."
"Oh! I'm relieved."
"I don't quite follow you, dolly, but—— Where was I? Do you realize what a demure tyrant you are? If you can drag me from New York to the aboriginal wilds, and I did not like that oatmeal, what will you do to this innocent? I want to protect him!"
"You better! Because I'm going to carve him, and paint him, and possibly spoil him. The creating of a man—of one who knows how to handle life—is so much more wonderful than creating absurd pictures or statues or stories. I'll nag him into completing college. He'll learn dignity—or perhaps lose his simplicity and be ruined; and then I'll marry him off to some nice well-bred pink-face, like Jeff Saxton's pretty cousin—who may turn him into a beastly money-grubber; and I'm monkeying with destiny, and I ought to be slapped, and I realize it, and I can't help it, and all my latent instinct as a feminine meddler is aroused, and—golly, I almost went off that curve!"
THE BLACK DAY OF THE VOYAGE
That was the one black day of her voyage—black stippled with crimson.
It began with the bear's invasion of the car, resulting in long claw-marks across the upholstery, the loss of some particularly good candy bought at a Park hotel, and genuine grief abiding after the sentimental tragedy of Vere de Vere's death. The next act was the ingenious loss of all power of her engine. She forgot that, before breakfast, Milt had filled the oil-well for her. When she stopped for gasoline, and the seller inquired, "Quart of oil?"—she absently nodded. So the cylinders filled with surplus oil, the spark-plugs were fouled, and the engine had the power of a sewing machine.
She could not make Mount Washburn—she could not make even the slopes of the lower road. Now she knew the agony of the feeble car in the mountains—most shameful and anxious of a driver's dolors: the brisk start up the hill, the belief that you will keep on going this time; the feeling of weariness through all the car; the mad shifting of gears, the slipping of the clutch, and more gas, and less gas, and wondering whether more gas or less is the better, and the appalling knocking when you finally give her a lot too much gas; the remembrance, when it's too late, to retard the spark; the safe crawling up to the last sharp pitch, just fifteen feet from the summit; the car's halting; the yelp at your passenger, "Jump out and push!"; the painful next five feet; and the final death of the power just as the front wheels creep up over the pitch. Then the anxious putting on of brakes—holding the car with both foot-brake and emergency, lest it run down backward, slip off the road. The calf of your leg begins to ache from the pressure on the foot-brake, and with an unsuccessful effort to be courteous you bellow at the passenger, who has been standing beside the car looking deprecatory, "Will you please block the back wheels with a stone—hustle up, will you!"
All this routine Claire thoroughly learned. Always Milt bumbled up, said cheerful things, and either hauled the Gomez over the pitch by a towline to his bug, or getting out, pushing on a rear fender till his neck was red and bulgy, gave the extra impetus necessary to get the Gomez over.
"Would you mind shoving on that side, just a little bit?" he suggested to Mr. Boltwood, who ceased the elaborate smoking of cigars, dusted his hands, and gravely obeyed, while Claire was awaiting the new captain's command to throw on the power.
"I wish we weren't under so much obligation to this young man," said Mr. Boltwood, after one crisis.
"I know but—what can we do?"
"Don't you suppose we might pay him?"
"Henry B. Boltwood, if you tried to do that—— I'm not sure. Your being my parent might save you, but even so, I think he'd probably chase you off the road, clear down into that chasm."
"I suppose so. Shall we have to entertain him in Seattle?"
"Have to? My dear parent, you can't keep me from it! Any of the Seattle friends of Gene Gilson who don't appreciate that straight, fine, aspiring boy may go—— Not overdo it, you understand. But—— Oh, take him to the theater. By the way; shall we try to climb Mount Rainier before——"
"See here, my good dolly; you stop steering me away from my feeble parental efforts. Do you wish to be under obligations——"
"Don't mind, with Milt. He wouldn't charge interest, as Jeff Saxton would. Milt is, oh, he's folks!"
"Quite true. But are we? Are you?"
"Learning to be!"
Between discussions and not making hills, Claire cleaned the spark plugs as they accumulated carbon from the surplus oil—or she pretended to help Milt clean them. The plugs were always very hot, and when you were unscrewing the jacket from the core, you always burned your hand, and wished you could swear ... and sometimes you could.
After noon, when they had left the Park and entered Gardiner, Milt announced, "I've got to stick around a while. The key in my steering-gear seems to be worn. May have to put in a new one. Get the stuff at a garage here. If you wouldn't mind waiting, be awful glad to tag, and try to give a few helping hands till the oil cleans itself out."
"I'll just stroll on," she said, but she drove away as swiftly as she could. Her father's worry about obligations disturbed her, and she did not wish to seem too troublesome an amateur to Milt. She would see him in Livingston, and tell him how well she had driven. The spark plugs kept clean enough now so that she could command more power, but——
Between the Park and the transcontinental road there are many climbs short but severely steep; up-shoots like the humps on a scenic railway. To tackle them with her uncertain motor was like charging a machine-gun nest. She spent her nerve-force lavishly, and after every wild rush to make a climb, she had to rest, to rub the suddenly aching back of her neck. Because she was so tired, she did not take the trouble to save her brakes by going down in gear. She let the brakes smoke while the river and railroad below rose up at her.
There was a long drop. How long it was she did not guess, because it was concealed by a curve at the top. She seemed to plane down forever. The brakes squealed behind. She tried to shift to first but there was a jarring snarl, and she could neither get into first nor back into third. She was running in neutral, the great car coasting, while she tried to slow it by jamming down the foot-brake. The car halted—and started on again. The brake-lining which had been wished on her at Saddle Back was burnt out.
She had the feeling of the car bursting out from under control ... ready to leap off the road, into a wash. She wanted to jump. It took all her courage to stay in the seat. She got what pressure she could from the remaining band. With one hand she kept the accelerating car in the middle of the road; with the other she tried to pull the handle of the emergency brake back farther. She couldn't. She was not strong enough. Faster, faster, rushing at the next curve so that she could scarce steer round it——
As quietly as she could, she demanded of her father, "Pull back on this brake lever, far as you can. Take both hands."
"I don't understand——"
"Heavens! Y' don't haft un'stand! Yank back! Yank, I tell you!"
Again the car slowed. She was able to get into second speed. Even that check did not keep the car from darting down at thirty miles an hour—which pace, to one who desires to saunter down at a dignified rate of eighteen, is equivalent in terms of mileage on level ground to seventy an hour, with a drunken driver, on a foggy evening, amid traffic.
She got the car down and, in the midst of a valley of emptiness and quiet, she dropped her head on her father's knee and howled.
"I just can't face going down another hill! I just can't face it!" she sobbed.
"No, dolly. Mustn't. We better—— You're quite right. This young Daggett is a very gentlemanly fellow. I didn't think his table-manners—— But we'll sit here and regard the flora and fauna till he comes. He'll see us through."
"Yes! He will! Honestly, dad——" She said it with the first touch of hero-worship since she had seen an aviator loop loops. "Isn't he, oh, effective! Aren't you glad he's here to help us, instead of somebody like Jeff Saxton?"
"We-ul, you must remember that Geoffrey wouldn't have permitted the brake to burn out. He'd have foreseen it, and have had a branch office, with special leased wire, located back on that hill, ready to do business the instant the market broke. Enthusiasm is a nice quality, dolly, but don't misplace it. This lad, however trustworthy he may be, would scarcely even be allowed to work for a man like Geoffrey Saxton. It may be that later, with college——"
"No. He'd work for Jeff two hours. Then Jeff would give him that 'You poor fish!' look, and Milt would hit him, and stroll out, and go to the North Pole or some place, and discover an oil-well, and hire Jeff as his nice, efficient general manager. And—— I do wish Milt would hurry, though!"
It was dusk before they heard the pit-pit-pit chuckling down the hill. Milt's casual grin changed to bashfulness as Claire ran into the road, her arms wide in a lovely gesture of supplication, and cried, "We been waiting for you so long! One of my brake-bands is burnt out, and the other is punk."
"Well, well. Let's try to figure out something to do."
She waited reverently while the local prophet sat in his bug, stared at the wheels of the Gomez, and thought. The level-floored, sagebrush-sprinkled hollow had filled with mauve twilight and creeping stilly sounds. The knowable world of yellow lights and security was far away. Milt was her only means of ever getting back to it.
"Tell you what we might try," he speculated. "I'll hitch on behind you, and hold back in going down hill."
She did not even try to help him while he again cleaned the spark plugs and looked over brakes, oil, gas, water. She sat on the running-board, and it was pleasant to be relieved of responsibility. He said nothing at all. While he worked he whistled that recent refined ballad:
I wanta go back to Oregon And sit on the lawn, and look at the dawn. Oh motheruh dear, don't leavuh me here, The leaves are so sere, in the fallothe year, I wanta go back to Oregugon, To dearuh old Oregugon.
They started, shouting optimistically to each other, lights on, trouble seeming over—and they stopped after the next descent, and pools of tears were in the corners of Claire's eyes. The holdback had not succeeded. Her big car, with its quick-increasing momentum, had jerked at the bug as though it were a lard-can. The tow-rope had stretched, sung, snapped, and again, in fire-shot delirium, she had gone rocking down hill.
He drove up beside her, got out, stood at her elbow. His "I'm a bum inventor. We'll try somethin' else" was so careless that, in her nerve-twanging exhaustion she wailed, "Oh, don't be so beastly cheerful! You don't care a bit!"
In the dusk she could see him straighten, and his voice came sharp as he ignored the ever-present parental background and retorted, "Somebody has got to be cheerful. Matter fact, I worked out the right stunt, coming down."
Like a man in the dentist's chair, recovering between bouts, she drowsed and ignored the fact that in a few minutes she would again have to reassemble herself, become wakeful and calm, and go through quite impossible maneuvers of driving. Milt was, with a hatchet from his camping-kit, cutting down a large scrub pine. He dragged it to the Gomez and hitched it to the back axle. The knuckles of the branches would dig into the earth, the foliage catch at every pebble.
"There! That anchor would hold a truck!" he shouted.
It held. She went down the next two hills easily. But she was through. Her forearms and brain were equally numb. She appealed to Milt, "I can't seem to go on any more. It's so dark, and I'm so tired——"
"All right. No ranch houses anywheres near, so we'll camp here, if Mr. Boltwood doesn't mind."
Claire stirred herself to help him prepare dinner. It wasn't much of a dinner to prepare. Both cars had let provisions run low. They had bacon and petrified ends of a loaf and something like coffee—not much like it. Scientists may be interested in their discovery that as a substitute for both cream and sugar in beverages strawberry jam is a fallacy.
For Mr. Boltwood's bed Milt hauled out the springy seat-cushions of both cars. The Gomez cushion was three inches thicker than that of the bug, which resulted in a mattress two stories in front with a lean-to at the foot, and the entire edifice highly slippery. But with a blanket from Milt's kit, it was sufficient. To Claire, Milt gave another blanket, his collection of antique overcoats, and good advice. He spoke vaguely of a third blanket for himself. And he had one. Its dimensions were thirteen by twenty inches, it was of white wool, he had bought it in Dakota for Vere de Vere, and many times that day he had patted it and whispered, "Poor old cat."
Under his blankets Mr. Boltwood thought of rattlesnakes, bears, rheumatism, Brooklyn, his debt to Milt, and the fact that—though he hadn't happened to mention it to Claire—he had expected to be killed when the brake had burned out.
Claire was drowsily happy. She had got through. She was conscious of rustling sagebrush, of the rapids of the Yellowstone beside her, of open sky and sweet air and a scorn for people in stuffy rooms, and comfortably ever conscious of Milt, ten feet away. She had in him the interest that a young physician would have in a new X-ray machine, a printer in a new font of type, any creator in a new outlet for his power. She would see to it that her Seattle cousins, the Gilsons, helped him to know the right people, during his university work. She herself would be back in Brooklyn, but perhaps he would write to her, write—write letters—Brooklyn—she was in Brooklyn—no, no, where was she?—oh, yes, camping—bad day—brakes—— No, she would not marry Jeff Saxton! Brooklyn—river singing—stars——
And when Milt wasn't unromantically thinking of his cold back, he exulted. "She won't be back among her own folks till Seattle. Probably forget me then. Don't blame her. But till we get there, she'll let me play in her yard. Gee! In the morning I'll be talking to her again, and she's right there, right now!"
In the morning they were all very stiff, but glad of the sun on sagebrush and river, and the boy and girl sang over breakfast. While Milt was gathering fuel he looked up at Claire standing against a background of rugged hills, her skirt and shoes still smug, but her jacket off, her blouse turned in at the throat, her hair blowing, her sleeves rolled up, one hand on her hip, erect, charged with vigor—the spirit of adventure.
When her brake had been relined, at Livingston, they sauntered companionably on to Butte. And the day after Butte, when Milt was half a mile behind the Gomez, a pink-haired man with a large, shiny revolver stepped out from certain bushes, and bowed politely, and at that point Milt stopped.
THE SPECTACLES OF AUTHORITY
Over the transcontinental divide and into Butte, diamond-glittering on its hills in the dark; into Missoula, where there are trees and a university, with a mountain in everybody's backyard; through the Flathead Agency, where scarlet-blanketed Indians stalk out of tepees and the papoose rides on mother's back as in forgotten days; down to St. Ignatius, that Italian Alp town with its old mission at the foot of mountains like the wall of Heaven, Claire had driven west, then north. She was sailing past Flathead Lake, where fifty miles of mountain glory are reflected in bright waters. Everywhere were sections of flat wheat-plains, stirring with threshing, with clattering machinery and the flash of blown straw. But these miniature prairies were encircled by abrupt mountains.
Mr. Boltwood remarked, "I'd rather have one of these homesteads and look across my fields at those hills than be King of England." Not that he made any effort to buy one of the homesteads. But then, he made no appreciable effort to become King of England.
Claire had not seen Milt for a day and a half; not since the morning when both cars had left Butte. She wondered, and was piqued, and slightly lonely. Toward evening, when she was speculating as to whether she would make Kalispell—almost up to the Canadian border—she saw a woman run into the road from a house on the shore of Flathead Lake. The woman held out her hand. Claire pulled up.
"Are you Miss Boltwood?"
It was as startling as the same question would have been in a Chinese village.
"Somebody trying to get you on the long-distance 'phone."
She was trembling. "Something's happened to Milt. He needs me!" She could not manage her voice, as she got the operator on the farmers'-line wire, and croaked, "Was some one trying to get Miss Boltwood?"
"Yes. This Boltwood? Hotel in Kalispell trying to locate you, for two hours. Been telephoning all along the line, from Butte to Somers."
"W-well, w-will you g-get 'em for me?"
It was not Milt's placid and slightly twangy voice but one smoother, more decisive, perplexingly familiar, that finally vibrated, "Hello! Hello! Miss Boltwood! Operator, I can't hear. Get me a better connection. Miss Boltwood?"
"Yes! Yes! This is Miss Boltwood!" she kept beseeching, during a long and not unheated controversy between the unknown and the crisp operator, who knew nothing of the English language beyond, "Here's your party. Why don't you talk? Speak louder!"
Then came clearly, "Hear me now?"
"Oh. Oh, hello, Claire. This is Jeff."
"Not Jess. Jeff! Geoffrey! J-e-f-f! Jeff Saxton!"
"Oh!" It was like a sob. "Why—why—but you're in New York."
"Not exactly, dear. I'm in Kalispell, Montana."
"But that's right near here."
"So am I!"
"Out West to see copper interests. Traced you from Yellowstone Park but missed you at Butte. Thought I'd catch you on road. You talking from Barmberry's?"
The woman who had hailed her was not missing a word of a telephone conversation which might be relative to death, fire, elopement, or any other dramatic event. Claire begged of her, "Where in the world am I talking from, anyway?"
"This is Barmberry's Inn."
"Yes," Claire answered on the telephone, "I seem to be. Shall I start on and——"
"No. Got ripping plan. Stay right where you are. Got a fast car waiting. Be right down. We'll have dinner. By!"
A click. No answer to Claire's urgent hellos. She hung up the receiver very, very carefully. She hated to turn and face her audience of Mr. Henry B. Boltwood, Mr. James Barmberry, Mrs. James Barmberry, and four Barmberry buds averaging five and a quarter in age. She tried to ignore the Barmberrys, but their silence was noisy and interested while she informed her father, "It's Jeff Saxton! Out here to see copper mines. Telephoned along road to catch us. Says we're to wait dinner till he comes."
"Yessum," Mrs. Barmberry contributed, "he told me if I did catch you, I was to have some new-killed chickens ready to fry, and some whipped cream—— Jim Barmberry, you go right out and finish whipping that cream, and don't stand there gawping and gooping, and you children, you scat!"
Claire seized the moment of Mr. Boltwood's lordly though bewildered bow to their hostess, and escaped outdoors. Round the original settler's log-cabin were nests of shacks and tents, for bedrooms, and on a screened porch, looking on Flathead Lake, was the dining-room. The few other guests had finished supper and gone to their tents.
She ambled to the lake shore, feeling feebler, more slapped and sent back to be a good little girl, than she had when Milt had hitched a forest to the back axle, three days ago. A map of her thoughts about Jeff Saxton would have shown a labyrinth. Now, she was muttering, "Dear Jeff! So thoughtful! Clever of him to find me! So good to see him again!" Now: "It's still distinctly understood that I am not engaged to him, and I'm not going to be surprised into kissing him when he comes down like a wolf on the fold." Now: "Jeff Saxton! Here! Makes me homesick for the Heights. And nice shops in Manhattan, and a really good play—music just before the curtain goes up." Now: "Ohhhhhh geeeeee whizzzzzz! I wonder if he'll let us go any farther in the car? He's so managerial, and dad is sure to take his side. He tried to scare us off by that telegram to Fargo." Now: "He'd be horrified if he knew about that bum brake. Milt didn't mind. Milt likes his womenfolks to be daring. Jeff wants his harem admiring and very reliable."
She crouched on the shore, a rather forlorn figure. The peaks of the Mission Range, across the violet-shadowed mirror of Flathead Lake, were a sudden pure rose, in reflection of sunset, then stony, forbidding. Across the road, on the Barmberry porch, she could hear her father saying "Ah?" and "Indeed?" to James's stories.
Up the road, a blaring horn, great lights growing momently more dazzling, a roar, a rush, the halting car, and out of its blurred bulk, a trim figure darting—Jeff Saxton—home and the people she loved, and the ways and days she knew best of all. He had shouted only "Is Miss——" before she had rushed to him, into the comfort of his arms, and kissed him.
She backed off and tried to sound as if it hadn't happened, but she was quavery: "I can't believe it! It's too ridiculously wonderful to see you!" She retreated toward the Barmberry porch, Jeff following, his two hands out. They came within the range of the house lights, and Mr. Boltwood hailed, "Ah! Geoffrey! Never had such a surprise—nor a more delightful one!"
"Mr. Boltwood! Looking splendid, sir! New man! William Street better look to its laurels when you come back and get into the game!"
Then, on the lamp-lighted porch, the two men shook hands, and looked for some other cordial thing to do. They thought about giving each other cigars. They smiled, and backed away, and smiled, in the foolish, indeterminate way males have, being unable to take it out in kissing. Mr. Boltwood solved the situation by hemming, "Must trot in and wash. See you very soon." Mr. James Barmberry and the squad of lesser Barmberrys regretfully followed. Claire was alone with Jeff, and she was frightened. Yet she was admitting that Jeff, in his English cap and flaring London top-coat, his keen smile and his extreme shavedness, was more attractive than she had remembered.
"Glad to see me?" he demanded.
"Nice trip? You know you've sent me nothing but postcards with 'Pretty town,' or something equally sentimental."
"Yes, it's really been bully. These mountains and big spaces simply inspire me." She said it rather defiantly.
"Of course they do! Trouble is, with you away, we've nothing to inspire us!"
"Do you need anything, with your office and your club?"
"I'm sorry. That was horrid of me."
"Yes, it was. Though I don't mind. I'm sure we've all become meek, missing you so. I'm quite willing to be bullied, and reminded that I'm a mere T.B.M."
She had got herself into it; she had to tell him that he wasn't just a business man; that she had "just meant" he was so practical.
"But Jeff is no longer the practical one," he declared. "Think of Claire driving over deserts and mountains. But—— Oh, it's been so lonely for us. Can you guess how much? A dozen times every evening, I've turned to the telephone to call you up and beg you to let me nip in and see you, and then realized you weren't there, and I've just sat looking at the 'phone—— Oh, other people are so dull!"
"You really miss——"
"I wish I were a poet, so I could tell you adequately. But you haven't said you missed me, Claire. Didn't you, a teeny bit? Wouldn't it have been tolerable to have poor old Jeff along, to drive down dangerous hills——"
"And fill grease-cups! Nasty and stickum on the fingers!"
"Yes, I'd have done that, too. And invented surprises along the way. I'm a fine surpriser! I've arranged for a motor-boat so we can explore the lake here tomorrow. That's why I had you wait here instead of coming on to Kalispell. Tomorrow morning, unfortunately, I have to hustle back and catch a train—called to California, and possibly a northern trip. But meantime—— By now, my driver must have sneaked my s'prises into the kitchen."
"What are they?"
"Food. Eats. Divine eats."
"But what? Please, sir. Claire is so hungry."
"We shall see in time, my child. Uncle Jeff is not to be hurried."
"Ah—let—me—see—now! I'll kick and scream!"
From New York Jeff had brought a mammoth picnic basket. To the fried chicken ordered for dinner he added sealed jars of puree of wood pigeon, of stuffed artichokes prepared by his club chef; caviar and anchovies; a marvelous nightmare-creating fruit cake to go with the whipped cream; two quarts of a famous sherry; candied fruits in a silver box. Dinner was served not on the dining-porch but before the fire in the Barmberrys' living-room. Claire looked at the candied fruits, stared at Jeff rather queerly—as though she was really thinking of some one else—and mused:
"I didn't know I cared so much for these foolish luxuries. Tonight, I'd like a bath, just a tiny bit scented, and a real dressing-table with a triple mirror, and French talc, and come down in a dinner-gown—— Oh, I have enjoyed the trip, Jeff. But my poor body does get so tired and dusty, and then you treacherously come along with these things that you've magicked out of the mountains and—— I'm not a pioneer woman, after all. And Henry B. is not a caveman. See him act idolatrously toward his soup."
"I feel idolatrous. I'd forgotten the supreme ethical importance of the soup. I'll never let myself forget it again," said Mr. Boltwood, in the tone of one who has come home.
Claire was grateful to Jeff that he did not let her go on being grateful. He turned the talk to Brooklyn. He was neat and explicit—and almost funny—in his description of an outdoor presentation of Midsummer Night's Dream, in which a domestic and intellectual lady weighing a hundred and eighty-seven stageside had enacted Puck. As they sat after dinner, as Claire shivered, he produced a knitted robe, and pulled it about her shoulders, smiling at her in a lonely, hungry way. She caught his hand.
"Nice Jeff!" she whispered.
"Oh, my dear!" he implored. He shook his head in a wistful way that caught her heart, and dutifully went back to informing Mr. Boltwood of the true state of the markets.
"Talk to Claire too!" she demanded. She stopped, stared. From outside she heard a nervous pit-pit-pit, a blurred dialogue between Mr. James Barmberry and another man. Into the room rambled Milt Daggett, dusty of unpressed blue suit, tired of eyes, and not too well shaved of chin, grumbling, "Thought I'd never catch up with you, Claire—— Why——"
"Oh! Oh, Milt—Mr. Daggett—— Oh, Jeff, this is our good friend Milt Daggett, who has helped us along the road."
Jeff's lucid rimless spectacles stared at Milt's wind-reddened eyes; his jaunty patch-pocket outing clothes sniffed at Milt's sweater; his even voice followed Milt's grunt of surprise with a curt "Ah. Mr. Daggett."
"Pleased meet you," faltered Milt.
Jeff nodded, turned his shoulder on Milt, and went on, "The fact is, Mr. Boltwood, the whole metal market——"
Milt was looking from one to another. Claire was now over her first shocked comparison of candied fruits with motor grease. She rose, moved toward Milt, murmuring, "Have you had dinner?"
The door opened again. A pink-haired, red-faced man in a preposterous green belted suit lunged in, swept his broad felt hat in greeting, and boomed like a cheap actor:
"Friends of my friend Milt, we about to dine salute you. Let me introduce myself as Westlake Parrott, better known to the vulgar as Pinky Parrott, gentleman adventurer, born in the conjunction of Mars and Venus, with Saturn ascendant."
Jeff had ignored Milt. But at this absurd second intrusion on his decidedly private dinner-party he flipped to the center of the room and said "I beg your pardon!" in such a head-office manner that the pink-locked Mystery halted in his bombast. Claire felt wabbly. She had no theories as to where Milt had acquired a private jester, nor as to what was about to happen to Milt—and possibly to her incautious self.
THE VAGABOND IN GREEN
As Milt had headed westward from Butte, as he rattled peacefully along the road, conscious of golden haze over all the land, and the unexpectedness of prairie threshing-crews on the sloping fields of mountainsides, a man had stepped out from bushes beside the road, and pointed a .44 navy revolver.
The man was not a movie bandit. He wore a green imitation of a Norfolk jacket, he had a broad red smile, and as he flourished his hat in a bow, his hair was a bristly pompadour of gray-streaked red that was almost pink. He made oration:
"Pardon my eccentric greeting, brother of the open road, but I wanted you to give ear to my obsequious query as to how's chances on gettin' a lift? I have learned that obsequiousness is best appreciated when it is backed up by prayer and ca'tridges."
"What's the idea? I seem to gather you'd like a lift. Jump in."
"You do not advocate the Ciceronian style, I take it," chuckled the man as he climbed aboard.
Milt was not impressed. Claire might have been, but Milt had heard politics and religion argued about the stove in Rauskukle's store too often to be startled by polysyllabomania. He knew it was often the sign of a man who has read too loosely and too much by himself. He snorted. "Huh! What are you—newspaper, politics, law, preacher, or gambler?"
"Well, a little of all those interesting occupations. And ten-twent-thirt trouping, and county-fair spieling, and selling Dr. Thunder Rapids' Choctaw Herbal Sensitizer. How far y' going?"
"Honest? Say, kid, this is—— Muh boy, we shall have the rare privilege of pooling adventures as far as Blewett Pass, four to six days' run from here—a day this side of Seattle. I'm going to my gold-mine there. I'll split up on the grub—I note from your kit that you camp nights. Quite all right, my boy. Pinky Parrott is no man to fear night air."
He patted Milt's shoulder with patronizing insolence. He filled a pipe and, though the car was making twenty-five, he lighted the pipe with distinguished ease, then settled down to his steady stride:
"In the pride of youth, you feel that you have thoroughly categorized me, particularly since I am willing to admit that, though I shall have abundance of the clinking iron men to buy my share of our chow, I chance just for the leaden-footed second to lack the wherewithal to pay my railroad fare back to Blewett; and the bumpers and side-door Pullman of the argonauts like me not. Too damn dusty. But your analysis is unsynthetic, though you will scarce grasp my paradoxical metaphor."
"The hell I won't. I've taken both chemistry and rhetoric," growled Milt, strictly attending to driving, and to the desire to get rid of his parasite.
"Oh! Oh, I see. Well, anyway: I am no mere nimble knight of wits, as you may take it. In fact, I am lord of fair acres in Arcady."
"Don't know the burg. Montana or Idaho?"
"Neither! In the valley of dream!"
"Oh! That one. Huh!"
"But I happen to back them up with a perfectly undreamlike gold-mine. Prospected for it in a canyon near Blewett Pass and found it, b' gum, and my lady wife, erstwhile fairest among the society favorites of North Yakima, now guards it against her consort's return. Straight goods. Got the stuff. Been to Butte to get a raise on it, but the fell khedives of commerce are jealous. They would hearken not. Gee, those birds certainly did pull the frigid mitt! So I wend my way back to the demure Dolores, the houri of my heart, and the next time I'll take a crack at the big guns in Seattle. And I'll sure reward you for your generosity in taking me to Blewett, all the long, long, languid, languorous way——"
"Too bad I got to stop couple of days at Spokane."
"Well, then you shall have the pleasure of taking me that far."
"And about a week in Kalispell!"
"'Twill discommode me, but 'pon honor, I like your honest simple face, and I won't desert you. Besides! I know a guy in Kalispell, and I can panhandle the sordid necessary chuck while I wait for you. Little you know, my cockerel, how facile a brain your 'bus so lightly bears. When I've cashed in on the mine, I'll take my rightful place among the motored gentry. Not merely as actor and spieler, promoter and inventor and soldier and daring journalist, have I played my role, but also I am a mystic, an initiate, a clairaudient, a psychometrist, a Rosicrucian adept, and profoundly psychic—in fact, my guide is Hermes Trismegistus himself! I also hold a degree as doctor of mento-practic, and my studies in astro-biochemistry——"
"Gonna stop. All off. Make little coffee," said Milt.
He did not desire coffee, and he did not desire to stop, but he did desperately desire not to inflict Pinky Parrott upon the Boltwoods. It was in his creed as a lover of motors never to refuse a ride to any one, when he had room. He hoped to get around his creed by the hint implied in stopping. Pinky's reaction to the hint was not encouraging:
"Why, you have a touch of the psychic's flare! I could do with coffee myself. But don't trouble to make a fire. I'll do that. You drive—I do the camp work. Not but that I probably drive better than you, if you will permit me to say so. I used to do a bit of racing, before I took up aviation."
"Huh! Aviation! What machine d'you fly?"
"Why, why—a biplane!"
"Huh! What kind of motor?"
"Why, a foreign one. The—the—— It was a French motor."
"Huh! What track you race on?"
"The—— Pardon me till I build a fire for our al fresco collation, and I my driving history will unfold."
But he didn't do either.
After he had brought seven twigs, one piece of sagebrush, and a six-inch board, Pinky let Milt finish building the fire, while he told how much he knew about the mysteries of ancient Egyptian priests.
Milt gave up hope that Pinky would become bored by waiting and tramp on. After one hour of conversational deluge, he decided to let Pinky drive—to make him admit that he couldn't. He was wrong. Pinky could drive. He could not drive well, he wabbled in his steering, and he killed the engine on a grade, but he showed something of the same dashing idiocy that characterized his talk. It was Milt not Pinky, who was afraid of their running off the road, and suggested resuming the wheel.
Seven times that day Milt tried to lose him. Once he stopped without excuse, and merely stared up at rocks overhanging the hollowed road. Pinky was not embarrassed. He leaned back in the seat and sang two Spanish love songs. Once Milt deliberately took a wrong road, up a mountainside. They were lost, and took five hours getting back to the highway. Pinky loved the thrill and—in a brief address lasting fifteen minutes—he said so.
Milt tried to bore him by driving at seven miles an hour. Pinky affectionately accepted this opportunity to study the strata of the hills. When they camped, that night, Pinky loved him like a brother, and was considering not stopping at Blewett Pass, to see his gold-mine and Dolores the lady-wife, but going clear on to Seattle with his playmate.
The drafted host lay awake, and when Pinky awoke and delivered a few well-chosen words on the subject of bird-song at dawn, Milt burst out:
"Pinky, I don't like to do it, but—— I've never refused a fellow a lift, but I'm afraid you'll have to hike on by yourself, the rest of the way."
Pinky sat up in his blankets. "Afraid of me, eh? You better be! I'm a bad actor. I killed Dolores's husband, and took her along, see? I——"
"Are you trying to scare me, you poor four-flusher?" Milt's right hand expanded, fingers arching, with the joyous tension of a man stretching.
"No. I'm just reading your thoughts. I'm telling you you're scared of me! You think that if I went on, I might steal your car! You're afraid because I'm so suave. You aren't used to smooth ducks. You don't dare to let me stick with you, even for today! You're afraid I'd have your mis'able car by tonight! You don't dare!"
"The hell I don't!" howled Milt. "If you think I'm afraid—— Just to show you I'm not, I'll let you go on today!"
"That's sense, my boy. It would be a shame for two such born companions of the road to part!" Pinky had soared up from his blankets; was lovingly shaking Milt's hand.
Milt knew that he had been tricked, but he felt hopeless. Was it impossible to insult Pinky? He tried again:
"I'll be frank with you. You're the worst wind-jamming liar I ever met. Now don't reach for that gat of yours. I've got a hefty rock right here handy."
"But, my dear, dear boy, I don't intend to reach for any crude lethal smoke-wagon. Besides, there isn't anything in it. I hocked the shells in Butte. I am not angry, merely grieved. We'll argue this out as we have breakfast and drive on. I can prove to you that, though occasionally I let my fancy color mere untutored fact with the pigments of a Robert J. Ingersoll—— By the way, do you know his spiel on whisky?"
"Stick to the subject. We'll finish our arguing right now, and I'll give you breakfast, and we'll sadly part."
"Merely because I am lighter of spirits than this lugubrious old world? No! I decline to be dropped. I'll forgive you and go on with you. Mind you, I am sensitive. I will not intrude where I am not welcome. Only you must give me a sounder reason than my diverting conversational powers for shucking me. My logic is even stronger than my hedonistic contempt for hitting the pike."
"Well, hang it, if you must know—— Hate to say it, but I'd do almost anything to get rid of you. Fact is, I've been sort of touring with a lady and her father, and you would be in the way!"
"Aaaaaaah! You see! Why, my boy, I will not only stick, but for you, I shall do the nimble John Alden and win the lady fair. I will so bedizen your virile, though somewhat crassly practical gifts—— Why, women are my long suit. They fall for——"
"Tut, tut, tut! You're a fool. She's no beanery mistress, like you're used to. She really is a lady."
"How blind you are, cruel friend. You do not even see that whatever my vices may be, my social standing——"
"Oh—shut—up! Can't you see I'm trying to be kind to you? Have I simply got to beat you up before you begin to suspect you aren't welcome? Your social standing isn't even in the telephone book. And your vocabulary—— You let too many 'kids' slip in among the juicy words. Have I got to lick——"
"Well. You're right. I'm a fliv. Shake hands, m' boy, and no hard feelings."
"Good. Then I can drive on nice and alone, without having to pound your ears off?"
"Certainly. That is—we'll compromise. You take me on just a few miles, into more settled country, and I'll leave you."
So it chanced that Milt was still inescapably accompanied by Mr. Pinky Parrott, that evening, when he saw Claire's Gomez standing in the yard at Barmberry's and pulled up.
Pinky had voluntarily promised not to use his eloquence on Claire, nor to try to borrow money from Mr. Boltwood. Without ever having quite won permission to stay, he had stayed. He had also carried out his promise to buy his half of the provisions by adding a five-cent bag of lemon drops to Milt's bacon and bread.
When they had stopped, Milt warned, "There's their machine now. Seems to be kind of a hotel here. I'm going in and say howdy. Good-by, Pink. Glad to have met you, but I expect you to be gone when I come out here again. If you aren't—— Want granite or marble for the headstone? I mean it, now!"
"I quite understand, my lad. I admire your chivalric delicacy. Farewell, old compagnon de voyage!"
Milt inquired of Mr. Barmberry whether the Boltwoods were within, and burst into the parlor-living-room-library. As he cried to Claire, by the fire, "Thought I'd never catch up with you," he was conscious that standing up, talking to Mr. Boltwood, was an old-young man, very suave, very unfriendly of eye. He had an Oxford-gray suit, unwrinkled cordovan shoes; a pert, insultingly well-tied blue bow tie, and a superior narrow pink bald spot. As he heard Jeff Saxton murmur, "Ah. Mr. Daggett!" Milt felt the luxury in the room—the fleecy robe over Claire's shoulders, the silver box of candy by her elbow, the smell of expensive cigars, and the portly complacence of Mr. Boltwood.
"Have you had any dinner?" Claire was asking, when a voice boomed, "Let me introduce myself as Westlake Parrott."
Jeff abruptly took charge. He faced Pinky and demanded, "I beg pardon!"
Claire's eyebrows asked questions of Milt.
"This is a fellow I gave a lift to. Miner—I mean actor—well, kind of spiritualistic medium——"
Mr. Boltwood, with the geniality of dinner and cigar, soothed, "Jeff, uh, Daggett here has saved our lives two distinct times, and given us a great deal of help. He is a motor expert. He has always refused to let us do anything in return but—— I noticed there was almost a whole fried chicken left. I wonder if he wouldn't share it with, uh, with his acquaintance here before—before they make camp for the night?"
In civil and vicious tones Jeff began, "Very glad to reward any one who has been of service to——"
He was drowned out by Pinky's effusive, "True hospitality is a virtue as delicate as it is rare. We accept your invitation. In fact I should be glad to have one of those cigarros elegantos that mine olfactory——"
Milt cut in abruptly, "Pink! Shut up! Thanks, folks, but we'll go on. Just wanted to see if you had got in safe. See you tomorrow, some place."
Claire was close to Milt, her fingers on his sleeve. "Please, Milt! Father! You didn't make your introduction very complete. You failed to tell Mr. Daggett that this is Mr. Saxton, a friend of ours in Brooklyn. Please, Milt, do stay and have dinner. I won't let you go on hungry. And I want you to know Jeff—Mr. Saxton.... Jeff, Mr. Daggett is an engineer, that is, in a way. He's going to take an engineering course in the University of Washington. Some day I shall make you bloated copper magnates become interested in him.... Mrs. Barmberry. Mrssssssss. Barrrrrrrmberrrrrry! Oh. Oh, Mrs. Barmberry, won't you please warm up that other chicken for——"
"Oh, now, that's too bad. Me and Jim have et it all up!" wept the landlady, at the door.
"I'll go on," stammered Milt.
Jeff looked at him expressionlessly.
"You will not go on!" Claire was insisting. "Mrs. Barmberry, won't you cook some eggs or steak or something for these boys?"
"Perhaps," Jeff suggested, "they'd rather make their own dinner by a campfire. Must be very jolly, and that sort of thing."
"Jeff, if you don't mind, this is my party, just for the moment!"
"Quite right. Sorry!"
"Milt, you sit here by the fire and get warm. I'm not going to be robbed of the egotistic pleasure of being hospitable. Everybody look happy now!"
She got them all seated—all but Pinky. He had long since seated himself, by the fire, in Claire's chair, and he was smoking a cigar from the box which Jeff had brought for Mr. Boltwood.
Milt sat farthest from the fire, by the dining-table. He was agonizing, "This Jeff person is the real thing. He's no Percy in riding-breeches. He's used to society and nastiness. If he looks at me once more—young garage man found froze stiff, near Flathead Lake, scared look in eyes, believed to have met a grizzly, no signs of vi'lence. And I thought I could learn to mingle with Claire's own crowd! I wish I was out in the bug. I wonder if I can't escape?"
THE FALLACY OF ROMANCE
During dinner Milt watched Jeff Saxton's manner and manners. The hot day had turned into a cold night. Jeff tucked the knitted robe about Claire's shoulders, when she returned to the fire. He moved quietly and easily. He kept poking up the fire, smiling at Claire as he did so. He seemed without difficulty to maintain two conversations: one with Mr. Boltwood about finances, one with Claire about mysterious persons called Fannie and Alden and Chub and Bobbie and Dot, the mention of whom made Milt realize how much a stranger he was. Once, as he passed by Claire, Jeff said gently, "You are lovely!" Only that, and he did not look at her. But Milt saw that Claire flushed, and her eyes dimmed.
Pinky was silent till he had eaten about two-thirds of the total amount of fried eggs, cold lamb and ice-box curios. When Claire came over to see how they fared, Pinky removed himself, with smirking humility, and firmly joined himself to Jeff and Mr. Boltwood. He caught the subject of finance and, while Claire dropped down in the chair by Milt, Pinky was lecturing the two men from New York:
"Ah, finance! Queen of the sociological pantheon! I don't know how come I am so graced by Fortune as to have encountered in these wilds two gentlemen so obviously versed in the stratagems of the great golden game, but I will take the opportunity to give you gentlemen some statistics about the gold-deposits still existent in the Cascades and other ranges that may be of benefit and certainly will be a surprise to you. It happens that I have at the present time a mine——"
Claire was whispering to Milt, "If we can get rid of your dreadful passenger, I do want you to meet Mr. Saxton. He may be of use to you some day. He's terribly capable, and really quite nice. Think! He happened to be out here, and he traced me by telephone—oh, he treats long-distance 'phoning as I do a hair-pin. He brought down the duckiest presents—divertissements for dinner, and that knitted robe, and some real Rene Bleuzet perfume—I was all out of it—— And after the grime of the road——"
"Do you really care for things like that, all those awfully expensive luxuries?" begged Milt.
"Of course I do. Especially after small hotels."
"Then you don't really like adventuring?"
"Oh yes—in its place! For one thing, it makes a clever dinner seem so good by contrast!"
"Well—— Afraid I don't know much about clever dinners," Milt was sighing, when he was aware of Jeff Saxton looming down on him, demanding:
"Daggett, would you mind trying to inform your friend that neither Mr. Boltwood nor I care to invest in his gold-mine? We can't seem to get that into his head. I don't mind being annoyed myself, but I really feel I must protect Mr. Boltwood."
"What can I do?"
"My dear sir, since you brought him here——"
It was the potassium cyanide and cracked ice and carpet tacks and TNT and castor oil in Jeff's "My dear sir" that did it. Milt discovered himself on his feet, bawling, "I am not your dear sir! Pinky is my guest, and—— Gee, sorry I lost my temper, Claire, terrible sorry. See you along the road. Good night. Pink! You take your hat! Git!"
Milt followed Pinky out of the door, snarling, "Git in the car, and do it quick. I'll take you clear to Blewett Pass. We drive all night."
Pinky was of great silence and tact. Milt lumped into the bug beside him. But he did not start the all-night drive. He wanted to crawl back, on his knees, to apologize to Claire—and to be slapped by Jeff Saxton. He compromised by slowly driving a quarter of a mile up the road, and camping there for the night.
Pinky tried to speak words of philosophy and cheer—just once he tried it.
For hours, by a small fire, Milt grieved that all his pride was gone in a weak longing to see Claire again. In the morning he did see her—putting off on the lake, in a motor-boat with Jeff and Mr. Barmberry. He saw the boat return, saw Jeff get into the car which had brought him from Kalispell, saw the farewell, the long handclasp, the stoop of Jeff's head, and Claire's quick step backward before Jeff could kiss her. But Claire waved to Jeff long after his car had started.
* * * * *
When Claire and her father came along in the Gomez, Milt was standing by the road. She stopped. She smiled. "Night of sadness and regrets? You were fairly rude, Milt. So was Mr. Saxton, but I've lectured him, and he sends his apologies."
"I send him mine—'deed I do," said Milt gravely.
"Then everything's all right. I'm sure we were all tired. We'll just forget it."
"Morning, Daggett," Mr. Boltwood put in. "Hope you lose that dreadful red-headed person."
"No, I can't, Mr. Boltwood. When Mr. Saxton turned on me, I swore I'd take Pinky clear through to Blewett Pass ... though not to Seattle, by golly!"
"Foolish oaths should be broken," Claire platitudinized.
"Claire—look—— You don't really care so terribly much about these little luxuries, food and fixin's and six-dollar-a-day-hotel junk, do you?"
"Yes," stoutly, "I do."
"But not compared with mountains and——"
"Oh, it's all very well to talk, and be so superior about these dear old grandeurs of Nature, and the heroism of pioneers, and I do like a glimpse of them. But the niceties of life do mean something and even if it is weak and dependent, I shall always simply adore them!"
"All these things are kind of softening." And he meant that she was still soft.
"At least they're not rude!" And she meant that he was rude.
"They're absolutely trivial. They shut off——"
"They shut off rain and snow and dirt, and I still fail to see the picturesqueness of dirt! Good-by!"
She had driven off, without looking back. She was heading for Seattle and the Pacific Ocean at forty miles an hour—and they had no engagement to meet either in Seattle or in the Pacific.
Before Milt went on he completed a task on which he had decided the night before while he had meditated on the tailored impertinence of Jeff Saxton's gray suit. The task was to give away the Best Suit, that stolid, very black covering which at Schoenstrom had seemed suitable either to a dance or to the Y. P. S. C. E. The recipient was Mr. Pinky Parrott, who gave in return a history of charity and high souls.
Milt did not listen. He was wondering, now that they had started, where they had started for. Certainly not for Seattle! Why not stop and see Pinky's gold-mine? Maybe he did have one. Even Pinky had to tell the truth sometimes. With a good popular gold-mine in his possession, Milt could buy quantities of clothes like Jeff Saxton's, and——
"And," he reflected, "I can learn as good manners as his in one hour, with a dancing lesson thrown in. If I didn't, I'd sue the professor!"
THE NIGHT OF ENDLESS PINES
On the edge of Kootenai Canyon, feeling more like an aviator than like an automobilist, Claire had driven, and now, nearing Idaho, she had entered a national forest. She was delayed for hours, while she tried to change a casing, after a blow-out when the spare tire was deflated. She wished for Milt. She would never see him again. She was sorry. He hadn't meant——
But hang it, she panted, if he admired her at all, he'd be here now and get on this per-fect-ly beast-ly casing, over which she had been laboring for a dozen years; and she was simply too ridiculously tired; and was there any respectful way of keeping Henry B. from beaming in that benevolent manner while she was killing herself; and look at those fingernails; and—oh, drrrrrrat that casing!
To make the next town, after this delay, she had to drive for hours by night through the hulking pines of the national forest. It was her first long night drive.
A few claims, with log cabins of recent settlers, once or twice the shack of a forest-ranger, a telephone in a box by the road or a rough R. F. D. box nailed to a pine trunk, these indicated that civilization still existed, but they were only melancholy blurs. She was in a cold enchantment. All of her was dead save the ability to keep on driving, forever, with no hope of the tedium ending. She was bewildered. She passed six times what seemed to be precisely the same forest clearing, always with the road on a tiny ridge to the left of the clearing, always with a darkness-stilled house at one end and always, in the pasture at the other end, a horse which neighed. She was in a panorama stage-scene; things moved steadily by her, there was a sound of the engine, and a sensation of steering, but she was forever in the same place, among the same pines, with the same scowling blackness between their bare clean trunks. Only the road ahead was clear: a one-way track, the foot-high earthy bank and the pine-roots beside it, two distinct ruts, and a roughening of strewn brown bark and pine-needles, which, in the beating light of the car's lamps, made the sandy road scabrous with little incessant shadows.
She had never known anything save this strained driving on. Jeff and Milt were old tales, and untrue. Was it ten hours before that she had cooked dinner beside the road? No matter. She wasn't hungry any longer. She would never reach the next town—and she didn't care. It wasn't she, but a grim spirit which had entered her dead body, that kept steering, feeding gas, watching the road.
In the darkness outside the funnel of light from her lamps were shadows that leaped, and gray hands hastily jerked back out of sight behind tree trunks as she came up; things that followed her, and hidden men waiting for her to stop.
As drivers will, she tried to exorcise the creeping fear by singing. She made up what she called her driving-song. It was intended to echo the hoofs of a fat old horse on a hard road:
The old horse trots with a jog, jog, jog, And a jog, jog, jog; and a jog, jog, jog. And the old road makes a little jog, jog, jog, To the west, jog, jog; and the north, jog, jog. While the farmer drinks some cider from his jug, jug, jug, From his coy jug, jug; from his joy jug, jug. Till he accumulates a little jag, jag, jag, And he jigs, jigs, jigs, with his jug, jug, jug——
The song was a comfort, at first—then a torment. She drove to it, and she steered to it, and when she tried to forget, it sang itself in her tired brain: "Jog, jog, jog—oh, damn!"
Her father had had a chill. Miserable, weak as a small boy, he had curled up on the bottom of the car, his head on the seat, and gone to sleep. She was alone. The mile-posts went by slowly. The posts said there was a town ahead called Pellago, but it never came——
And when it did come she was too tired to care. In a thick dream she drove through midnight streets of the town. In stupid paralysis she kicked at the door of the galvanized-iron-covered garage. No answer. She gave it up. She drove down the street and into the yard of a hotel marked by a swing sign out over the plank sidewalk. She got out the traveling bags, awakened her father, led him up on the porch.
The Pellago Tavern was a transformed dwelling house. The pillars of the porch were aslant, and the rain-warped boards snapped beneath her feet. She hesitatingly opened the door. The hallway was dark and musty. A sound like a moan filtered down the unlighted stairs.
There seemed to be light in the room on the right. Trying to assure herself that her father was a protection, she pushed open the door. She looked into an airless room, scattered with rubber boots, unsavory old corduroy caps, tattered magazines. By the stove nodded a wry-mouthed, squat old woman, and a tall, cheaply handsome man of forty. Tobacco juice stained the front of his stiff-bosomed, collarless shirt. His hands were white but huge.
The old woman started. "Well?"
"I want to get two rooms for the night, please."
The man smirked at her. The woman creaked, "Well, I don't know. Where d' you come from, heh?"
"We're motoring through."
"Heh? Who's that man?"
"He's my father, madam."
"Needn't to be so hoity-toity about it, 'he's my father, madam!' F' that matter, that thing there is my husband!"
The man had been dusting his shabby coat, stroking his mustache, smiling with sickly gallantry. He burbled, "Shut up, Teenie. This lady is all right. Give her a room. Number 2 is empty, and I guess Number 7 has been made up since Bill left—if 'tain't, the sheets ain't been slept on but one night."
"Where d' you come——"
"Now don't go shooting off a lot of questions at the lady, Teenie. I'll show her the rooms."
The woman turned on her husband. He was perhaps twenty-five years younger; a quarter-century less soaked in hideousness. Her yellow, concave-sided teeth were bared at him, her mouth drew up on one side above the gums. "Pete, if I hear one word more out of you, out you go. Lady! Huh! Where d' you come from, young woman?"
Claire was too weak to stagger away. She leaned against the door. Her father struggled to speak, but the woman hurled:
"From New York. Is there another hotel——"
"Nah, there ain't another hotel! Oh! So you come from New York, do you? Snobs, that's what N' Yorkers are. I'll show you some rooms. They'll be two dollars apiece, and breakfast fifty cents extra."
The woman led them upstairs. Claire wanted to flee, but—— Oh, she couldn't drive any farther! She couldn't!
The floor of her room was the more bare in contrast to a two-foot-square splash of gritty ingrain carpet in front of the sway-backed bed. On the bed was a red comforter that was filthy beyond disguise. The yellow earthenware pitcher was cracked. The wall mirror was milky. Claire had been spoiled. She had found two excellent hotels since Yellowstone Park. She had forgotten how badly human beings can live. She protested:
"Seems to me two dollars is a good deal to charge for this!"
"I didn't say two dollars. I said three! Three each for you and your pa. If you don't like it you can drive on to the next town. It's only sixteen miles!"
"Why the extra dollar—or extra two dollars?"
"Don't you see that carpet? These is our best rooms. And three dollars—— I know you New Yorkers. I heard of a gent once, and they charged him five dollars—five dol-lars!—for a room in New York, and a boy grabbed his valise from him and wanted a short-bit and——"
"Oh—all—right! Can we get something to eat?"
"We haven't eaten since noon."
"That ain't my fault! Some folks can go gadding around in automobuls, and some folks has to stay at home. If you think I'm going to sit up all night cooking for people that come chassayin' in here God knows what all hours of the day and night——! There's an all-night lunch down the street."
When she was alone Claire cried a good deal.
Her father declined to go out to the lunch room. The chill of the late ride was still on him, he croaked through his door; he was shivering; he was going right to bed.
"Yes, do, dear. I'll bring you back a sandwich."
"Safe to go out alone?"
"Anything's safe after facing that horrible—— I do believe in witches, now. Listen, dear; I'll bring you a hot-water bag."
She took the bag down to the office. The landlady was winding the clock, while her husband yawned. She glared.
"I wonder if I may have some hot water for my father? He has a chill."
"Stove's out. No hot water in the house."
"Couldn't you heat some?"
"Now look here, miss. You come in here, asking for meals and rooms at midnight, and you want a cut rate on everything, and I do what I can, but enough's enough!"
The woman stalked out. Her husband popped up. "Mustn't mind the old girl, lady. Got a grouch. Well, you can't blame her, in a way; when Bill lit out, he done her out of four-bits! But I'll tell you!" he leered. "You leave me the hot-water biznai, and I'll heat you some water myself!"
"Thank you, but I won't trouble you. Good night."
Claire was surprised to find a warm, rather comfortable all-night lunch room, called the Alaska Cafe, with a bright-eyed man of twenty-five in charge. He nodded in a friendly way, and made haste with her order of two ham-and-egg sandwiches. She felt adventurous. She polished her knife and fork on a napkin, as she had seen people do in lunches along the way. A crowd of three rubbed their noses against the front window to stare at the strange girl in town, but she ignored them, and they drifted away.
The lunchman was cordial: "At a hotel, ma'am? Which one? Gee, not the Tavern?"
"Why yes. Is there another?"
"Sure. First-rate one, two blocks over, one up."
"The woman said the Tavern was the only hotel."
"Oh, she's an old sour-face. Don't mind her. Just bawl her out. What's she charging you for a room?"
"Per each? Gee! Well, she sticks tourists anywheres from one buck to three. Natives get by for fifty cents. She's pretty fierce, but she ain't a patch on her husband. He comes from Spokane—nobody knows why—guess he was run out. He takes some kind of dope, and he cheats at rummy."
"But why does the town stand either of them? Why do you let them torture innocent people? Why don't you put them in the insane hospital, where they belong?"
"That's a good one!" her friend chuckled. But he saw it only as a joke.
She thought of moving her father to the good hotel, but she hadn't the strength.
Claire Boltwood, of Brooklyn Heights, went through the shanty streets of Pellago, Montana, at one A.M. carrying a sandwich in a paper bag which had recently been used for salted peanuts, and a red rubber hot-water bag filled with water at the Alaska Cafe. At the Tavern she hastened past the office door. She made her father eat his sandwich; she teased him and laughed at him till the hot-water bag had relieved his chill-pinched back; she kissed him boisterously, and started for her own room, at the far end of the hall.
The lights were off. She had to feel her way, and she hesitated at the door of her room before she entered. She imagined voices, creeping footsteps, people watching her from a distance. She flung into the room, and when the kindled lamp showed her familiar traveling bag, she felt safer. But once she was in bed, with the sheet down as far as possible over the loathly red comforter, the quiet rustled and snapped about her, and she could not relax. Sinking into sleep seemed slipping into danger, and a dozen times she started awake.
But only slowly did she admit to herself that she actually did hear a fumbling, hear the knob of her door turning.
"It's me, lady. The landlord. Brought you the hot water."
"Thanks so much, but I don't need it now."
"Got something else for you. Come to the door. Don't want to holler and wake ev'body up."
At the door she said timorously, "Nothing else I want, thank you. D-don't bother me."
"Why, I've brought you up a sandwich, girlie, all nice and hot, and a nip of something to take the chill off."
"I don't want it, I tell you!"
"Be a sport now! You use Pete right, and he'll use you right. Shame to see a lady like you not gettin' no service here. Open the door. Dandy sandwich!" The knob rattled again. She said nothing. The heel of her palm pressed against the door till the molding ate into it. The man was snorting:
"I ain't going to all this trouble and then throw away a good sandwich. You asked me——"
"M-must I s-shout?"
"S-shout your fool head off!" He kicked the door. "Good friends of mine, 'long this end of the hall. Aw, listen. Just teasing. I'm not going to rob you, little honey bird. Laws, you could have a million dollars, and old Pete wouldn't take two-bits. I just get so darn lonely in this hick town. Like to chat to live ones from the big burg. I'm a city fella myself—Spokane and Cheyenne and everything."
In her bare feet, Claire had run across the room, looked desperately out of the window. Could she climb out, reach her friend of the Alaska Cafe? If she had to——
Then she grinned. The world was rose-colored and hung with tinkling bells. "I love even that Pinky person!" she said. In the yard of the hotel, beside her Gomez, was a Teal bug, and two men were sleeping in blankets on the ground.
She marched over to the door. She flung it open. The man started back. He was holding an electric, torch. She could not see him, but to the hovering ball of light she remarked, "Two men, friends of mine, are below, by their car. You will go at once, or I'll call them. If you think I am bluffing, go down and look. Good night!"
THE FREE WOMAN
Before breakfast, Claire darted down to the hotel yard. She beamed at Milt, who was lacing a rawhide patch on a tire, before she remembered that they were not on speaking terms. They both looked extremely sheepish and young. It was Pinky Parrott who was the social lubricant. Pinky was always on speaking terms with everybody. "Ah, here she is! The little lady of the mutinous eyes! Our colonel of the flivver hussars!"
But he got no credit. Milt straightened up and lumbered, "Hel-lo!"
She peeped at him and whispered, "Hel-lo!"
"Say, oh please, Claire—— I didn't mean——"
"Oh, I know! Let's—let's go have breakfast."
"Was awfully afraid you'd think we were fresh, but when we came in last night, and saw your car—didn't like the looks of the hotel much, and thought we'd stick around."
"I'm so glad. Oh, Milt—yes, and you, Mr. Parrott—will you whip—lick—beat up—however you want to say it—somebody for me?"
With one glad communal smile Milt and Pinky curved up their wrists and made motions as of pulling up their sleeves.
"But not unless I say so. I want to be a Citizeness Fixit. I've been good for so long. But now——"
"Show him to me!" and "Up, lads, and atum!" responded her squad.
"Not till after breakfast."
It was a sufficiently vile breakfast, at the Tavern. The feature was curious cakes whose interior was raw creepy dough. A dozen skilled workmen were at the same long table with Claire, Milt, Pinky, and Mr. Boltwood—the last two of whom were polite and scenically descriptive to each other, but portentously silent about gold-mines. The landlady and a slavey waited on table; the landlord could be seen loafing in the kitchen.
Toward the end of the meal Claire insultingly crooked her finger at the landlady and said, "Come here, woman."
The landlady stared, then ignored her.
"Very well. Then I'll say it publicly!" Claire swept the workmen with an affectionate smile. "Gentlemen of Pellago, I want you to know from one of the poor tourists who have been cheated at this nasty place that we depend on you to do something. This woman and her husband are criminals, in the way they overcharge for hideous food and——"
The landlady had been petrified. Now she charged down. Behind her came her husband. Milt arose. The husband stopped. But it was Pinky who faced the landlady, tapped her shoulder, and launched into, "And what's more, you hag, if our new friends here have any sense, they'll run you out of town."
That was only the beginning of Pinky's paper on corrections and charities. He enjoyed himself. Before he finished, the landlady was crying ... she voluntarily promised to give her boarders waffles, some morning, jus' soon as she could find the waffle-iron.
With her guard about her, at the office desk, Claire paid one dollar apiece for the rooms, and discussion was not.
Before they started, Milt had the chance to say to her, "I'm getting so I can handle Pinky now. Have to. Thinking of getting hold of his gold-mine. I just give him the eye, as your friend Mr. Saxton would, and he gets so meek——"
"But don't! Please understand me, Milt; I do admire Mr. Saxton; he is fine and capable, and really generous; only—— He may be just a bit snippish at times, while you—you're a playmate—father's and mine—and—— I did face that landlady, didn't I! I'm not soft and trivial, am I! Praise!"
* * * * *
She had driven through the panhandle of Idaho into Washington, through Spokane, through the writhing lava deposits of Moses Coulee where fruit trees grow on volcanic ash. Beyond Wenatchee, with its rows of apple trees striping the climbing fields like corduroy in folds, she had come to the famous climb of Blewett Pass. Once over that pass, and Snoqualmie, she would romp into Seattle.
She was sorry that she hadn't come to know Milt better, but perhaps she would see him in Seattle.
Not adventure alone was she finding, but high intellectual benefit in studying the names of towns in the state of Washington. Not Kankakee nor Kalamazoo nor Oshkosh can rival the picturesque fancy of Washington, and Claire combined the town-names in a lyric so emotion-stirring that it ought, perhaps, to be the national anthem. It ran:
Humptulips, Tum Tum, Moclips, Yelm, Satsop, Bucoda, Omak, Enumclaw, Tillicum, Bossburg, Chettlo, Chattaroy, Zillah, Selah, Cowiche, Keechelus, Bluestem, Bluelight, Onion Creek, Sockeye, Antwine, Chopaka, Startup, Kapowsin, Skamokawa, Sixprong, Pysht!
Klickitat, Kittitas, Spangle, Cedonia, Pe Ell, Cle Elum, Sallal, Chimacum, Index, Taholah, Synarep, Puyallup, Wallula, Wawawai, Wauconda, Washougal, Walla Walla, Washtucna, Wahluke, Solkulk, Newaukum, Wahkiakus, Penawawa, Ohop, Ladd!
Harrah, Olalla, Umtanum, Chuckanut, Soap Lake, Loon Lake, Addy, Ace, Usk, Chillowist, Moxee City, Yellepit, Cashup, Moonax, Mabton, Tolt, Mukilteo, Poulsbo, Toppenish, Whetstone, Inchelium, Fishtrap, Carnation, Shine, Monte Cristo, Conconully, Roza, Maud!
China Bend, Zumwalt, Sapolil, Riffle, Touchet, Chesaw, Chew, Klum, Bly, Humorist, Hammer, Nooksack, Oso, Samamish, Dusty, Tiger, Turk, Dot, Scenic, Tekoa, Nellita, Attalia, Steilacoom, Tweedle, Ruff, Lisabeula, Latah, Peola, Towal, Eltopia, Steptoe, Pluvius, Sol Duc, Twisp!
"And then," complained Claire, "they talk about Amy Lowell! I leave it to you, Henry B., if any union poet has ever written as gay a refrain as 'Ohop Ladd'!"
She was not merely playing mental whist. She was trying to keep from worry. All the way she had heard of Blewett Pass; its fourteen miles of climbing, and the last half mile of stern pitch. On this eastern side of the pass, the new road was not open; there was a tortuous, flint-scattered trail, too narrow, in most places, for the passing of other cars. Claire was glad that Milt and Pinky were near her.
If so many of the race of kind advisers of tourists had not warned her about it, doubtless she would have gone over the pass without difficulty. But their voluntary croaking sapped her nerve, and her father's. He kept worrying, "Do you think we better try it?" When they stopped at a ranch house at the foot of the climb, for the night, he seemed unusually tired. He complained of chill. He did not eat breakfast. They started out silent, depressed.
He crouched in the corner of the seat. She looked at him and was anxious. She stopped on the first level space on the pass, crying, "You are perfectly miserable. I'm afraid of—— I think we ought to see a doctor."
"Oh, I'll be all right."
But she waited till Milt came pit-pattering up the slope. "Father feels rather sick. What shall I do? Turn round and drive to the nearest doctor—at Cashmere, I suppose?"
"There's a magnolious medico ahead here on the pass," Pinky Parrott interrupted. "A young thing, but they say he's a graduate of Harvard. He's out here because he has some timber-claims. Look, Milt o' the Daggett, why don't you drive Miss Boltwood's 'bus—make better time, and hustle the old gent up to the doc, and I'll come on behind with your machine."
"Why," Claire fretted, "I hate——"
A new Milt, the boss, abrupt, almost bullying, snapped out of his bug. "Good idee. Jump in, Claire. I'll take your father up. Heh, whasat, Pink? Yes, I get it; second turn beyond grocery. Right. On we go. Huh? Oh, we'll think about the gold-mine later, Pink."
With the three of them wedged into the seat of the Gomez, and Pinky recklessly skittering after them in the bug, they climbed again—and lo! there was no climb! Unconsciously Claire had hesitated before dashing at each sharp upsloping bend; had lost headway while she was wondering, "Suppose the car went off this curve?" Milt never sped up, but he never slackened. His driving was as rhythmical as music.
They were so packed in that he could scarcely reach gear lever and hand-brake. He halted on a level, and curtly asked, "That trap-door in the back of the car—convertible extra seat?"
"Yes, but we almost never use it, and it's stuck. Can't get it open."
"I'll open it all right! Got a big screwdriver? Want you sit back there. Need elbow room."
"Perhaps I'd better drive with Mr. Pinky."
"Nope. Don't think better."
With one yank he opened the trap-door, revealing a folding seat, which she meekly took. Back there, she reflected, "How strong his back looks. Funny how the little silvery hairs grow at the back of his neck."
They came to a settlement and the red cedar bungalow of Dr. Hooker Beach. The moment Claire saw the doctor's thin demanding face, she trusted him. He spoke to Mr. Boltwood with assurance: "All you need is some rest, and your digestion is a little shaky. Been eating some pork? Might stay here a day or two. We're glad to have a glimpse of Easterners."
Mr. Boltwood went to bed in the Beaches' guest-room. Mrs. Beach gave Claire and Milt lunch, with thin toast and thin china, on a porch from which an arroyo dropped down for a hundred feet. Fir trees scented the air, and a talking machine played the same Russian music that was popular that same moment in New York. And the Beaches knew people who knew Claire.
Claire was thinking. These people were genuine aristocrats, while Jeff Saxton, for all his family and his assumptions about life, was the eternal climber. Milt, who had been uncomfortable with Jeff, was serene and un-self-conscious with the Beaches, and the doctor gratefully took his advice about his stationary gas engine. "He's rather like the Beaches in his simplicity—yes, and his ability to do anything if he considers it worth while," she decided.
After lunch, when the doctor and his wife had to trot off to a patient, Claire proposed, "Let's walk up to that ledge of rock and see the view, shall we, Milt?"
"Yes! And keep an eye on the road for Pinky. The poor nut, he hasn't showed up. So reckless; hope he hasn't driven the Teal off the road."
She crouched at the edge of a rock, where she would have been frightened, a month before, and looked across the main road to a creek in a pine-laced gully. He sat beside her, elbows on knees.
"Those Beaches—their kin are judges and senators and college Presidents, all over New England," she said. "This doctor must be the grandson of the ambassador, I fancy."
"Honest? I thought they were just regular folks. Was I nice?"
"Of course you were."
"Did I—did I wash my paws and sit up and beg?"
"No, you aren't a little dog. I'm that. You're the big mastiff that guards the house, while I run and yip." She was turned toward him, smiling. Her hand was beside him. He touched the back of it with his forefinger, as though he was afraid he might soil it.
There seemed to be no reason, but he was trembling as he stammered, "I—I—I'm d-darn glad I didn't know they were anybody, or 'd have been as bad as a flivver driver the first time he tries a t-twelve-cylinder machine. G-gee your hand is little!"
She took it back and inspected it. "I suppose it is. And pretty useless."
"N-no, it isn't, but your shoes are. Why don't you wear boots when you're out like this?" A flicker of his earlier peremptoriness came into his voice. She resented it:
"My shoes are perfectly sensible! I will not wear those horrible vegetarian uplift sacks on my feet!"
"Your shoes may be all right for New York, but you're not going to New York for a while. You've simply got to see some of this country while you're out here—British Columbia and Alaska."
"Would be nice, but I've had enough roughing——"
"Chance to see the grandest mountains in the world, almost, and then you want to go back to tea and all that junk!"
"Stop trying to bully me! You have been dictatorial ever since we started up——"
"Have I? Didn't mean to be. Though I suppose I usually am bullying. At least I run things. There's two kinds of people; those that give orders, and those that naturally take them; and I belong to the first one, and——"
"But my dear Milt, so do I, and really——"
"And mostly I'd take them from you. But hang it, Seattle is just a day away, and you'll forget me. Wish I could kidnap you. Have half a mind to. Take you way up into the mountains, and when you got used to roughing it in sure-enough wilderness—say you'd helped me haul timber for a flume—then we'd be real pals. You have the stuff in you, but you still need toughening before——"
"Listen to me, Milton. You have been reading fiction, about this man—sometimes he's a lumberjack, and sometimes a trapper or a miner, but always he's frightfully hairy—and he sees a charming woman in the city, and kidnaps her, and shuts her up in some unspeakable shanty, and makes her eat nice cold boiled potatoes, and so naturally, she simply adores him! A hundred men have written that story, and it's an example of their insane masculine conceit, which I, as a woman, resent. Shakespeare may have started it, with his silly Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare's men may have been real, but his women were dolls, designed to please some majesty. You may not know it, but there are women today who don't live just to please majesties' fancies. If a woman like me were kidnapped, she would go on hating the brute, or if she did give in, then the man would lose anyway, because she would have degenerated; she'd have turned into a slave, and lost exactly the things he'd liked in her. Oh, you cavemen! With your belief that you can force women to like you! I have more courage than any of you!"