When the crowd began bubblingly to move toward the door, Milt prepared to move—and bubble—with them. Though Claire's note had sounded as though she was really a little lonely, at the tea she had said nothing to him except, "So glad you came. Do you know Dolly Ransome? Dolly, this is my nice Mr. Daggett. Take him and make him happy."
Dolly hadn't made him in the least happy. She had talked about tennis; she had with some detail described her remarkable luck in beating one Sally Saunders three sets. Now Milt was learning tennis. He was at the present period giving two hours a week to tennis, two to dancing, two to bridge. But he preferred cleaning oil-wells to any of these toilsome accomplishments, and it must sadly be admitted that all the while he was making his face bright at Dolly, he was wondering what would happen if he interrupted Dolly's gurgling, galloping, giggling multitudinousness by shouting, "Oh, shut up!"
When it seemed safe to go, and he tried to look as though he too were oozing out to a Crane-Simplex, Claire slipped beside him, soft as a shadow, and whispered, "Please don't go. I want to talk to you. Please!" There was fluttering wistfulness in her voice, though instantly it was gone as she hastened to the door and was to be heard asserting that she did indeed love Seattle.
Milt looked out into the hall. He studied a console with a curious black and white vase containing a single peacock feather, and a gold mirror shimmering against a gray wall.
"Lovely stuff. I like that mirror. Like a slew in the evening. But it isn't worth being a slave for. I'm not going to be a Mr. Riggs. Poor devil, he's more of a servant than any of these maids. Certainly am sorry for that poor fish. He'll have a chance to take his coat off and sit down and smoke—when he's dead!"
The guests were gone; the Gilsons upstairs. Claire came running, seized Milt's sleeve, coaxed him to the davenport in the drawing-room—then sighed, and rubbed her forehead, and looked so tired that he could say nothing but, "Hope you haven't been overdoing."
"No, just—just talking too much."
He got himself to say, "Miss Ransome—the one that's nuts about tennis—she's darn nice."
"Yes, she's—she's—— What do you hear from your father?"
"Oh, he's back at work."
"Trip do him good?"
"Oh, a lot."
"Milt! Tell me about you. What are you doing? What are you studying? How do you live? Do you really cook your own meals? Do you begin to get your teeth into the engineering? Oh, do tell me everything. I want to know, so much!"
"There isn't a whole lot to tell. Mostly I'm getting back into math. Been out of touch with it. I find that I know more about motors than most of the fellows. That helps. And about living—oh, I keep conservative. Did you know I'd sold my garage?"
"Oh, I didn't, I didn't!"
He wondered why she said it with such stooping shame, but he went on mildly, "Well, I got a pretty good price, but of course I don't want to take any chances on running short of coin, so I'm not splurging much. And——" He looked at his nails, and whistled a bar or two, and turned his head away, and looked back with a shy, "And I'm learning to play bridge and tennis and stuff!"
"Oh, my dear!" It was a cry of pain. She beat her hands for a moment before she murmured, "When are we going to have our lessons in dancing—and in making an impression on sun-specks like Dolly Ransome?"
"I don't know," he parried. Then, looking at her honestly, he confessed, "I don't believe we're ever going to. Claire, I can't do it. I'm no good for this tea game. You know how clumsy I was. I spilled some tea, and I darn near tripped over some woman's dress and—— Oh, I'm not afraid of them. Now that I get a good close look at this bunch, they seem pretty much like other folks, except maybe that one old dame says 'cawn't.' But I can't do the manners stunt. I can't get myself to give enough thought to how you ought to hold a tea-cup."
"Oh, those things don't matter—they don't matter! Besides, everybody likes you—only you're so terribly cautious that you never let them see the force and courage and all that wonderful sweet dear goodness that's in you. And as for your manners—heaven knows I'm no P. G. Wodehouse valet. But I'll teach you all I know."
"Claire, I appreciate it a lot but—— I'm not so darn sure I want to learn. I'm getting scared. I watched that bird named Riggs here today. He's a regular fellow, or he was, but now he's simply lost in the shuffle. I don't want to be one of the million ghosts in a city. Seattle is bad enough—it's so big that I feel like a no-see-um in a Norway pine reserve. But New York would be a lot worse. I don't want to be a Mr. Riggs."
"Yes, but—I'm not a Mrs. Riggs!"
"What do you——"
He did not finish asking her what she meant. She was in his arms; she was whispering, "My heart is so lonely;" and the room was still. The low sun flooded the windows, swam in the mirror in the hall, but they did not heed, did not see its gliding glory.
Not till there was a sound of footsteps did she burst from his arms, spring to her reflection in the glass of a picture, and shamefacedly murmur to him over her shoulder, "My hair—it's a terrible giveaway!"
He had followed her; he stood with his arm circling her shoulder.
She begged, "No. Please no. I'm frightened. Let's—oh, let's have a walk or something before you scamper home."
"Look! My dear! Let's run away, and explore the town, and not come back till late evening."
They walked from Queen Anne Hill through the city to the docks. There was nothing in their excited, childish, "Oh, see that!" and "There's a dandy car!" and "Ohhhhh, that's a Minnesota license—wonder who it is?" to confess that they had been so closely, so hungrily together.
They swung along a high walk overlooking the city wharf. They saw a steamer loading rails and food for the government railroad in Alaska. They exclaimed over a nest of little, tarry fishing-boats. They watched men working late to unload Alaska salmon.
They crossed the city to Jap Town and its writhing streets, its dark alleys and stairways lost up the hillsides. They smiled at black-eyed children, and found a Japanese restaurant, and tried to dine on raw fish and huge shrimps and roots soaked in a very fair grade of light-medium motor oil.
With Milt for guide, Claire discovered a Christianity that was not of candles and shifting lights and insinuating music, nor of carpets and large pews and sound oratory, but of hoboes blinking in rows, and girls in gospel bonnets, and little silver and crimson placards of Bible texts. They stopped on a corner to listen to a Pentecostal brother, to an I. W. W. speaker, to a magnificent negro who boomed in an operatic baritone that the Day of Judgment was coming on April 11, 1923, at three in the morning.
In the streets of Jap Town, in cheap motion-picture theaters, in hotels for transient workmen, she found life, running swift and eager and many-colored; and it seemed to her that back in the house of four-posters and walls of subdued gray, life was smothered in the very best pink cotton-batting. Milt's delight in every picturesque dark corner, and the colloquial eloquence of the street-orators, stirred her. And when she saw a shopgirl caress the hand of a slouching beau in threadbare brown, her own hand slipped into Milt's and clung there.
But they came shyly up to the Gilson hedge, and when Milt chuckled, "Bully walk; let's do it again," she said only, "Oh, yes, I did like it. Very much."
He had abruptly dropped his beautiful new felt hat. He was clutching her arms, demanding, "Can you like me? Oh my God, Claire, I can't play at love. I'm mad—I just live in you. You're my blood and soul. Can I become—the kind of man you like?"
"My dear!" She was fiercely addressing not him alone but the Betzes and Coreys and Gilsons and Jeff Saxtons, "don't you forget for one moment that all these people—here or Brooklyn either—that seem so aloof and amused, are secretly just plain people with enamel on, and you're to have the very best enamel, if it's worth while. I'm not sure that it is——"
"You're going to kiss me!"
"No! Please no! I don't—I don't understand us, even now. Can't we be just playmates a while yet? But—I do like you!"
She fled. When she reached the hall she found her eyelids wet.
It was the next afternoon——
Claire was curled on the embroidered linen counterpane of her bed, thinking about chocolates and Brooklyn and driving through Yellowstone Park and corn fritters and satin petticoats versus crepe de chine and Mount Rainier and Milt and spiritualism and manicuring, when Mrs. Gilson prowled into her room and demanded "Busy?" so casually that Claire was suspicious.
"No. Not very. Something up?"
"A nice party. Come down and meet an amusing man from Alaska."
Claire took her time powdering her nose, and ambled downstairs and into the drawing-room, to find——
Jeff Saxton, Mr. Geoffrey Saxton, who is the height of Brooklyn Heights, standing by the fireplace, smiling at her.
THE ENEMY LOVE
But at second glance—was it Jeff? This man was tanned to a thick even brown in which his eyes were startlingly white. His hands were burned red; there was a scar across one of them; and he was standing with them cockily at his hips, all unlike the sleekly, noisily quiet Jeff of Brooklyn. He was in corduroy trousers and belted corduroy jacket, with a khaki-colored flannel shirt.
But his tranquilly commanding smile was Jeff's, and his lean grace; and Jeff's familiar amused voice greeted her paralyzed amazement with:
"Hello, pard! Ain't I met you some place in Montana?"
"Just landed from Alaska. Had to run up there from California. How are you, little princess?"
His hand was out to her, then both hands, beseechingly, but she did not run to him, as she had at Flathead Lake. She stalked him cautiously, and shook hands—much too heartily. She sought cover in the wing-chair and—much too cordially—she invited:
"Tell me all about it."
He was watching her. Already his old pursuing determination, his steady dignity, were beginning to frighten her. But he calmly dropped into a straight chair, and obliged:
"It's really been quite a lively journey. Didn't know I could like roughing-it so well. And it was real roughing-it, pretty much. Oh, not dangerous at all, but rather vigorous. I had to canoe up three hundred miles of a shallow river, with one Indian guide, making a portage every ten miles or so, and we got tipped over in the rapids now and then—the Big Chief almost got drowned once—and we camped at night in the original place where they invented mosquitoes—and one morning I shot a black bear just in time to keep him from eating my boots."
"Oh!" she sighed in admiration, and "Oh!" again, uneasily.
Nothing had been said about it; Jeff was the last person in the world to spoil his triumph by commenting on it; but both of them knew that they had violently changed places; that now it was she who was the limp indoor-dweller, and he who was the ruddy ranger; that as he had admired her at Flathead Lake, so now it was hers to admire, and his to be serenely heroic.
She was not far from the worshiping sub-deb in her sighing, "How did you get the scar?"
"That? Oh, nothing."
"Please tell me."
"Really and truly. Nothing at all. Just a drunken fellow with a knife, playing the fool. I didn't have to touch him—quite sure he could have given me a frightful beating and all that sort of thing. It was the Big Chief who got rid of him."
"He—cut you? With a kniiiiiife? Ohhhhhhh!"
She ran to him, pityingly stroked the scar, looked down at him with filmy eyes. Then she tried to retreat, but he retained her hand, glanced up at her as though he knew her every thought. She felt weak. How could she escape him? "Please!" she begged flutteringly.
If he held her hand another moment, she trembled, she'd be on his lap, in his arms—lost. And he was holding it. He was——
Oh, he was too old for her. Yes, and too paternal. But still—— Life with Jeff would be protected, kindly, honorable.
Yet all the time she wanted, and stormily knew she wanted, to be fleeing to the boy Milt, her mate; to run away with him, hand in hand, discovering all the colored world, laughing at life, not afraid of losing dignity. In fear of Jeff's very kindliness and honor, she jerked her hand free. Then she tried to smile like a clever fencer.
As she retreated to her chair she stammered, "Did you—— Was Alaska interesting?"
He did not let her go, this time. Easy, cat-like for all his dry gravity, he sauntered after her, and with a fine high seriousness pleaded his case:
"Claire dear, those few weeks of fighting nature were a revelation to me. I'm going to have lots more of it. As it happens, they need me there. There's plenty of copper, but there's big transportation and employment problems that I seem better able to solve than the other chaps—though of course I'm an absolute muff when it comes to engineering problems. But I've had certain training and—I'm going to arrange things so that I get up there at least once a year. Next summer I'll make a much longer trip—see the mountains—oh, glorious mountains—and funny half-Russian towns, and have some fishing—— Wandering. The really big thing. Even finer than your superb plucky trip through——"
"Wasn't plucky! I'm a cry baby," she said, like a bad, contradictory little girl.
He didn't argue it. He smiled and said "Tut!" and placidly catalogued her with, "You're the pluckiest girl I've ever seen, and it's all the more amazing because you're not a motion-picture Tomboy, but essentially exquisite——"
"I'm a grub."
"Very well, then. You're a grub. So am I. And I like it. And when I make the big Alaskan trip next year I want you to go along! Claire! Haven't you any idea how terribly close to me the thought of you has been these weeks? You've guided me through the wilderness——"
"It's—— I'm glad." She sprang up, beseeching, "Jeff dear, you're going to stay for tea? I must run up and powder my nose."
"Not until you say you're glad to see me. Child dear, we've been ambling along and—— No. You aren't a child any more. You're a woman. And if I've never been quite a man, but just a dusty office-machine, that's gone now. I've got the wind of the wilderness in my lungs. Man and woman! My woman! That's all I'm going to say now, but—— Oh my God, Claire, I do need you so!"
He drew her head to his shoulder, and for an instant she rested there. But as she looked up, she saw coming age in the granulated skin of his throat.
"He needs me—but he'd boss me. I'd be the cunning child-wife, even at fifty," she worried, and "Hang him, it's like his superiority to beat poor Milt even at adventuring—and to be such a confounded Modest Christian Gentleman about it!"
"You'd—you're so dreadfully managing," she sighed aloud.
For the first time in all their acquaintanceship, Jeff's pride broke, and he held her away from him, while his lips were pathetic, and he mourned, "Why do you always try to hurt me?"
"Oh, my dear, I don't."
"Is it because you resent the decent things I have managed to do?"
"I don't understand."
"If I have an idea for a party, you think I'm 'managing.' If I think things out deeply, you say I'm dull."
"Oh, you aren't. I didn't mean——"
"What are you? A real woman, or one of these flirts, that love to tease a man because he's foolish enough to be honestly in love?"
"I'm not—hon-estly I'm not, Jeff. It's—— You don't quite make me—— It's just that I'm not in love with you. I like you, and respect you terribly, but——"
"I'm going to make you love me." His clutching fingers hurt her arm, and somehow she was not angry, but stirred. "But I'm not going to try now. Forget the Alaskan caveman. Remember, I haven't even used the word 'love.' I've just chatted about fjords, or whatever they are, but one of these days—— No. I won't do it. I want to stay here in Seattle a few days, and take you on jolly picnics, but—— Would you rather I didn't even do that? I'm——" He dropped her arm, kneaded his forehead with the heel of his palm. "I can't stand being regarded as a bothersome puppy. I can't stand it! I can't!"
"Please stay, Jeff! We'll have some darling drives and things. We'll go up Rainier as far as we can."
He stayed. He was anecdotal and amusing at tea, that afternoon. Claire saw how the Gilsons, and two girls who dropped in, admired him. That made her uneasy. And when Mrs. Gilson begged him to leave his hotel and stay with them, he refused with a quick look at Claire that hurt her.
"He wants me to be free. He's really so much more considerate than Milt. And I hurt him. Even his pride broke down. And I've spoiled Milt's life by meddling. And I've hurt the Gilsons' feelings. And I'm not much of a comfort to father. Oh, I'm absolutely no good," she agonized.
THE VIRTUOUS PLOTTERS
Mr. Geoffrey Saxton, in Alaskan tan and New York evening clothes and Piccadilly poise, was talking to the Eugene Gilsons while Claire finished dressing for the theater.
Mrs. Gilson observed, "She's the dearest thing. We've become awfully fond of her. But I don't think she knows what she wants to do with life. She's rather at loose ends. Who is this Daggett boy—some university student—whom she seems to like?"
"Well, since you speak of him—— I hadn't meant to, unless you did. I want to be fair to him. What did she tell you about him?" Jeff asked confidentially.
"Nothing, except that he's a young engineer, and frightfully brave and all those uncomfortable virtues, and she met him in Yellowstone Park or somewhere, and he saved her from a bear—or was it a tramp?—from something unnecessary, at any rate."
"Eva, I don't want to be supercilious, but the truth is that this young Daggett is a rather dreadful person. He's been here at the house, hasn't he? How did he strike you?"
"Not at all. He's silent, and as dull as lukewarm tea, but perfectly inoffensive."
"Then he's cleverer than I thought! Daggett is anything but dull and inoffensive, and if he can play that estimable role——! It seems that he is the son of some common workman in the Middlewest; he isn't an engineer at all; he's really a chauffeur or a taxi-driver or something; and he ran into Claire and Henry B. on the road, and somehow insinuated himself into their graces—far from being silent and commonplace, he appears to have some strange kind of charm which," Jeff sighed, "I don't understand at all. I simply don't understand it!
"I met him in Montana with the most gorgeously atrocious person I've ever encountered—one Pinky Westlake, or some such a name—positively, a crook! He tried to get Boltwood and myself interested in the commonest kind of a mining swindle—hinted that we were to join him in cheating the public. And this Daggett was his partner—they actually traveled together. But I do want to be just. I'm not sure that Daggett was aware of his partner's dishonesty. That isn't what worries me about the lad. It's his utter impossibility. He's as crude as iron-ore. When he's being careful, he may manage to be inconspicuous, but give him the chance——
"Really, I'm not exaggerating when I say that at thirty-five he'll be dining in his shirt-sleeves, and sitting down to read the paper with his shoes off and feet up on the table. But Claire—you know what a dear Quixotic soul she is—she fancies that because this fellow repaired a puncture or something of the sort for her on the road, she's indebted to him, and the worse he is, the more she feels that she must help him. And affairs of that kind—— Oh, it's quite too horrible, but there have been cases, you know, where girls as splendid and fine and well-bred as Claire herself have been trapped into low marriages by their loyalty to cadging adventurers!"
"Oh!" groaned Mrs. Gilson; and "Good Lord!" lamented Mr. Gilson, delighted by the possibility of tragedy; and "Really, I'm not exaggerating," said Jeff enthusiastically.
"What are we going to do?" demanded Mrs. Gilson; while Mr. Gilson, being of a ready and inventive mind, exclaimed, "By Jove, you ought to kidnap her and marry her yourself, Jeff!"
"I'd like to. But I'm too old."
They beautifully assured him that he was a blithe young thing with milk teeth; and with a certain satisfaction Jeff suggested, "I tell you what we might do. Of course it's an ancient stunt, but it's good. I judge that Daggett hasn't been here at the house much. Why not have him here so often that Claire will awaken to his crudity, and get sick of him?"
"We'll do it," thrilled Mrs. Gilson. "We'll have him for everything from nine-course dinners with Grandmother Eaton's napkins on view, to milk and cold ham out of the ice-box. When Claire doesn't invite him, I will!"
THE KITCHEN INTIMATE
Milt had become used to the Gilson drawing-room. He was no longer uncomfortable in the presence of its sleek fatness, though at first (not knowing that there were such resources as interior decorators), he had been convinced that, to have created the room, the Gilsons must have known everything in the world. Now he glanced familiarly at its white paneling, its sconces like silver candlesticks, the inevitable davenport inevitably backed by an amethyst-shaded piano lamp and a table crowded with silver boxes and picture-frames. He liked the winsomeness of light upon velvet and polished wood.
It was not the drawing-room but the kitchen that dismayed him.
In Schoenstrom he had known that there must somewhere be beautiful "parlors," but he had trusted in his experience of kitchens. Kitchens, according to his philosophy, were small smelly rooms of bare floors, and provided with one oilcloth-covered table, one stove (the front draft always broken and propped up with the lid-lifter), one cupboard with panes of tin pierced in rosettes, and one stack of dirty dishes.
But the Gilson kitchen had the efficiency of a laboratory and the superciliousness of a hair-dresser's booth. With awe Milt beheld walls of white tiles, a cork floor, a gas-range large as a hotel-stove, a ceiling-high refrigerator of enamel and nickel, zinc-topped tables, and a case of utensils like a surgeon's knives. It frightened him; it made more hopelessly unapproachable than ever the Alexandrian luxury of the great Gilsons.... The Vanderbilts' kitchen must be like this. And maybe King George's.
He was viewing the kitchen upon the occasion of an intimate Sunday evening supper to which he had been yearningly invited by Mrs. Gilson. The maids were all out. The Gilsons and Claire, Milt and Jeff Saxton, shoutingly prepared their own supper. While Mrs. Gilson scrambled eggs and made coffee, the others set the table, and brought cold ham and a bowl of salad from the ice-box.
Milt had intended to be a silent but deft servitor. When he had heard that he was to come to supper with the returned Mr. Geoffrey Saxton, he had first been panic-shaken, then resolved. He'd "let old iron-face Saxton do the high and mighty. Let him stand around and show off his clothes and adjectives, way he did at Flathead Lake." But he, Milt, would be "on the job." He'd help get supper, and calmly ignore Jeff's rudeness.
Only—Jeff wasn't rude. He greeted Milt with, "Ah, Daggett! This is so nice!" And Milt had no chance to help. It was Jeff who anticipated him and with a pleasant, "Let me get that—I'm kitchen-broke," snatched up the cold ham and salad. It was Jeff who found the supper plates, while Milt was blunderingly wondering how any one family could use a "whole furniture-store-full of different kinds of china." It was Jeff who sprang to help Claire wheel in the tea-wagon, and so captured the chance to speak to her for which Milt had been maneuvering these five minutes.
When they were settled, Jeff glowed at him, and respectfully offered, "I thought of you so often, Daggett, on a recent little jaunt of mine. You'd have been helpful."
"Where was that?" asked Milt suspiciously (wondering, and waiting to see, whether you could take cold ham in your fingers).
"Oh, in Alaska."
"In—Alaska?" Milt was dismayed.
"Yes, just a business trip there. There's something I wish you'd advise me about."
He was humble. And Milt was uneasy. He grumbled, "What's that?"
"I've been wondering whether it would be possible to use wireless telephony in Alaska. But I'm such a dub at electricity. Do you know—— What would be the cost of installing a wireless telephone plant with a hundred-mile radius?"
"Gee, I don't know!"
"Oh, so sorry. Well, I wonder if you can tell me about wireless telegraphy, then?"
"No, I don't know anything about that either."
Milt had desperately tried to make his answer gracious but somehow—— He hated this devil's obsequiousness more than he had his chilliness at Flathead Lake. He had a feeling that the Gilsons had delightedly kicked each other under the table; that, for all her unchanging smile, Claire was unhappy.... And she was so far off, a white wraith floating beyond his frantic grasp.
"It doesn't matter, really. But I didn't know—— So you've started in the engineering school at the University of Washington," Saxton was purring. "Have you met Gid Childers there—son of old Senator Childers—charming people."
"I've seen him. He has a Stutz—no, his is the Mercer," sighed Milt.
He hated himself for it, but he couldn't quite keep the awe out of his voice. People with Mercers——
Claire seemed to be trying to speak. She made a delicate, feminine, clairesque approximation to clearing her throat. But Jeff ignored her and with almost osculatory affection continued to Milt:
"Do let me know if there's anything I can do to help you. We're acquainted with two or three of your engineering faculty at the Office. They write in about various things. Do you happen to know Dr. Philgren?"
"Oh yes. Say! He's a wonder!" Milt was betrayed into exclaiming.
"Yes. Good chap, I believe. He's been trying to get a job with us. We may give him one. Just tell him you're a friend of mine, and that he's to give you any help he can."
Milt choked on a "Thanks."
"And—now that we're just the family here together—how goes the financial side? Can I be of any assistance in introducing you to some engineering firm where you could do a little work on the side? You could make quite a little money——"
So confoundedly affectionate and paternal——
Milt said irritably, "Thanks, but I don't need to do any work. I've got plenty of money."
"How pleasant!" Saxton's voice was smooth as marshmallow. "You're fortunate. I had quite a struggle to get through Princeton."
Wasn't Mr. Gilson contrasting Saxton's silk shirt with Milt's darned cotton covering, and in light of that contrast chuckling at Milt's boast and Saxton's modesty? Milt became overheated. His scalp prickled and his shoulder-blades were damp. As Saxton turned from him, and crooned to Claire, "More ham, honey?" Milt hated himself. He was in much of the dramatic but undesirable position of a man in pajamas, not very good pajamas, who has been locked out in the hotel corridor by the slamming of his door. He was in the frame of mind of a mongrel, of a real Boys'-Dog, at a Madison Square dog-show. He had a faint shrewd suspicion of Saxton's game. But what could he do about it?
He felt even more out of place when the family forgot him and talked about people of whom he had never heard.
He sat alone on an extremely distant desert isle and ate cold ham and wished he were in Schoenstrom.
Claire had recovered her power of speech. She seemed to be trying to bring him into the conversation, so that the family might appreciate him.
She hesitated, and thought with creased brows, and brought out, "Uh, uh, oh—— Oh Milt: How much is gas selling at now?"...
* * * * *
Milt left that charming and intimate supper-party at nine. He said, "Got to work on—on my analytical geometry," as though it was a lie; and he threw "Good night" at Saxton as though he hated his kind, good benefactor; and when he tried to be gracious to Mrs. Gilson the best he could get out was, "Thanks f' inviting me." They expansively saw him to the door. Just as he thought that he had escaped, Saxton begged, "Oh, Daggett, I was arguing with a chap—— What color are Holstein-Friesian cattle? Red?"
"Black and white," Milt said eagerly.
He heard Mrs. Gilson giggle.
He stood on the terrace wiping his forehead and, without the least struggle, finally and irretrievably admitting that he would never see Claire Boltwood or any of her friends again. Not—never!
* * * * *
He had received from Mrs. Gilson a note inviting him to share their box at the first night of a three-night Opera Season. He had spent half a day in trying to think of a courteously rude way of declining.
A straggly little girl came up from the candy-shop below his room, demanding, "Say, are you Mr. Daggett? Say, there's some woman wants to talk to you on our telephone. Say, tell them we ain't supposed to be no messenger-office. You ain't supposed to call no upstairs people on our telephone. We ain't supposed to leave the store and go trotting all over town to—— Gee, a nickel, gee, thank you, don't mind what ma says, she's always kicking."
On the telephone, he heard Claire's voice in an agitated, "Milt! Meet me down-town, at the Imperial Motion Picture Theater, right away. Something I've got to tell you. I'll be in the lobby. Hurry!"
When he bolted in she was already in the lobby, agitatedly looking over a frame of "stills." She ran to him, hooked her fingers in his lapel, poured out, "They've invited you to the opera? I want you to come and put it all over them. I'm almost sure there's a plot. They want to show me that you aren't used to tiaras and saxophones and creaking dowagers and tulle. Beat 'em! Beat 'em! Come to the opera and be awf'ly aloof and supercilious. You can! Yes, you can! And be sure—wear evening clothes. Now I've got to hurry."
"Don't disappoint me. I depend on you. Oh, say you will!"
She was gone, whisking into the Gilson limousine. He was in a glow at her loyalty, in a tremor of anger at the meddlers.
But he had never worn evening clothes.
He called it "a dress-suit," and before the complications of that exotic garb, he was flabby with anxiety. To Milt and to Schoenstrom—to Bill McGolwey, even to Prof Jones and the greasily prosperous Heinie Rauskukle—the dress-suit was the symbol and proof, the indication and manner, of sophisticated wealth. In Schoenstrom even waiters do not wear dress-suits. For one thing there aren't any waiters. There is one waitress at the Leipzig House, Miss Annie Schweigenblat, but you wouldn't expect Miss Schweigenblat to deal them off the arm in black trousers with braid down the side.
No; a dress-suit was what the hero wore in the movies; and the hero in the movies, when he wasn't a cowpuncher, was an ex-captain of the Yale football team, and had chambers and a valet. You could tell him from the valet because he wasn't so bald. It is true that Milt had heard that in St. Cloud there were people who wore dress-suits at parties, but then St. Cloud was a city, fifteen or sixteen thousand.
"How could he get away with a dress-suit? How could he keep from feeling foolish in a low-cut vest, and what the deuce would he do with the tails? Did you part 'em or roll 'em up, when you sat down? And wouldn't everybody be able to tell from his foolish look that he didn't belong in one?" He could hear A.D.T. boys and loafers in front of pool rooms whispering, "Look at the piker in the rented soup and fish!"
For of course he'd rent one. Nobody bought them—except plutes like Henry B. Boltwood.
He agitatedly walked up and down for an hour, peering into haberdashery windows, looking for a kind-faced young man. He found him, in Ye Pall Mall Toggery Shoppe & Shoes; an open-faced young man who was gazing through the window as sparklingly as though he was thinking of going as a missionary to India—and liked curry. Milt ironed out his worried face, clumped in, demanded fraternally, "Say, old man, don't some of these gents' furnishings stores have kind of little charts that tell just what you wear with dress-suits and Prince Alberts and everything?"
"You bet," said the kind-faced young man.
West of Chicago, "You bet" means "Rather," and "Yes indeed," and "On the whole I should be inclined to fancy that there may be some vestiges of accuracy in your curious opinion," and "You're a liar but I can't afford to say so."
The kind-faced young man brought from behind the counter a beautiful brochure illustrated with photographs of Phoebus Apollo in what were described as "American Beauty Garments—neat, natty, nobby, new." The center pages faithfully catalogued the ties, shirts, cuff-links, spats, boots, hats, to wear with evening clothes, morning clothes, riding clothes, tennis costumes, polite mourning.
As he looked it over Milt felt that his wardrobe already contained all these gentlemanly possessions.
With the aid of the clerk and the chart he purchased a tradition-haunted garment with a plate-armor bosom and an opening as crooked as the Missouri River; a white tie which in his strong red hands looked as silly as a dead fish; waistcoat, pearl links, and studs. For the first time, except for seizures of madness during two or three visits to Minneapolis motor accessory stores, he caught the shopping-fever. The long shining counter, the trim red-stained shelves, the glittering cases, the racks of flaunting ties, were beautiful to him and beckoning. He revolved a pleasantly clicking rack of ties, then turned and fought his way out.
He bought pumps—which cost exactly twice as much as the largest sum which he had allowed himself. He bought a newspaper, and in the want-columns found the advertisement:
Silberfarb the Society Tailor DRESS SUITS TO RENT Snappiest in the City
Despite the superlative snappiness of Mr. Silberfarb's dress-suits his establishment was a loft over a delicatessen, approached by a splintery stairway along which hung shabby signs announcing the upstairs offices of "J. L. & T. J. O'Regan, Private Detectives," "The Zenith Spiritualist Church, Messages by Rev. Lulu Paughouse," "The International Order of Live Ones, Seattle Wigwam," and "Mme. Lavourie, Sulphur Baths." The dead air of the hallway suggested petty crookedness. Milt felt that he ought to fight somebody but, there being no one to fight, he banged along the flapping boards of the second-floor hallway to the ground-glass door of Silberfarb the Society Tailor, who was also, as an afterthought on a straggly placard, "Pressng & Cleang While U Wait."
He belligerently shouldered into a low room. The light from the one window was almost obscured by racks of musty-smelling black clothes which stretched away from him in two dismal aisles that resembled a morgue of unhappy dead men indecently hung up on hooks. On a long, clumsily carpentered table, a small Jew, collarless, sweaty, unshaven, was darning trousers under an evil mantle gaslight. The Jew wrung out his hands and tried to look benevolent.
"Want to rent a dress-suit," said Milt.
"I got just the t'ing for you!"
The little man unfolded himself, galloped down the aisle, seized the first garment that came to hand, and came back to lay it against Milt's uncomfortable frame, bumbling, "Fine, mister, fy-en!"
Milt studied the shiny-seamed, worn-buttonholed, limp object with dislike. Its personality was disintegrated. The only thing he liked about it was the good garage stink of gasoline.
"That's almost worn out," he growled.
At this sacrilege Mr. Silberfarb threw up his hands, with the dingy suit flapping in them like a bed-quilt shaken from a tenement window. He looked Milt all over, coldly. His red but shining eyes hinted that Milt was a clodhopper and no honest wearer of evening clothes. Milt felt humble, but he snapped, "No good. Want something with class."
"Vell, that was good enough for a university professor at the big dance, but if you say so——"
In the manner of one who is being put to an unfair amount of trouble, Mr. Silberfarb returned the paranoiac dress-suit to the rack, sighing patiently as he laboriously draped it on a hanger. He peered and pawed. He crowed with throaty triumph and brought back a rich ripe thing of velvet collar and cuffs. He fixed Milt with eyes that had become as sulky as the eyes of a dog in August dust.
"Now that—you can't beat that, if you vant class, and it'll fit you like a glove. Oh, that's an ellllegant garment!"
Shaking himself out of the spell of those contemptuous eyes Milt opened his brochure, studied the chart, and in a footnote found, "Never wear velvet collars or cuffs with evening coat."
"Nope. Nix on the velvet," he remarked.
Then the little man went mad and ran around in circles. He flung the ellllegant garment on the table. He flapped his arms, and wailed, "What do you vant? What do you vannnnt? That's a hundred-and-fifty-dollar dress-suit! That belonged to one of the richest men in the city. He sold it to me because he was going to Japan."
"Well, you can send it to Japan after him. I want something decent. Have you got it—or shall I go some place else?"
The tailor instantly became affectionate. "How about a nice Tuxedo?" he coaxed.
"Nope. It says here—let me see—oh yes, here it is—it says here in the book that for the theater-with-ladies, should not wear 'dinner-coat or so-called Tuxedo, but——'"
"Oh, dem fellows what writes books they don't know nothing. Absolute! They make it up."
"Huh! Well, I guess I'll take my chance on them. The factory knows the ignition better 'n any repair-man."
"Vell say, you're a hard fellow to please. I'll give you one of my reserve stock, but you got to leave me ten dollars deposit instead of five."
Mr. Silberfarb quite cheerfully unlocked a glass case behind the racked and ghostly dead; he brought out a suit that seemed to Milt almost decent. And it almost fitted when, after changing clothes in a broiling, boiling, reeking, gasoline-pulsing hole behind the racks, he examined it before a pier-glass. But he caught the tailor assisting the fit by bunching up a roll of cloth at the shoulder. Again Milt snapped, and again the tailor suffered and died, and to a doubting heathen world maintained the true gospel of "What do you vannnnt? It ain't stylish to have the dress-suit too tight! All the gents is wearing 'em loose and graceful." But in the end, after Milt had gone as far as the door, Mr. Silberfarb admitted that one dress-coat wouldn't always fit all persons without some alterations.
The coat did bag a little, and it was too long in the sleeves, but as Milt studied himself in his room—by placing his small melancholy mirror on the bureau, then on a chair, then on the floor, finally, to get a complete view, clear out in the hall—he admitted with stirring delight that he looked "pretty fair in the bloomin' outfit." His clear face, his shining hair, his straight shoulders, seemed to go with the costume.
He wriggled into his top-coat and marched out of his room, theater-bound, with the well-fed satisfaction of a man who is certain that no one is giggling, "Look at the hand-me-downs." His pumps did alternately pinch his toes and rub his heels; the trousers cramped his waist; and he suspected that his tie had gone wandering. But he swaggered to the trolley, and sat as one rich and famous and very kind to the Common People, till——
Another man in evening clothes got on the car, and Milt saw that he wore a silk hat, and a white knitted scarf; that he took out and examined a pair of white kid gloves.
He'd forgotten the hat! He was wearing his gray felt. He could risk the gloves, but the hat—the "stovepipe"—and the chart had said to wear one—he was ruined——
He turned up the collar of his top-coat to conceal his white tie, tried to hide each of his feet behind the other to cover up his pumps; sought to change his expression from that of a superior person in evening clothes to that of a decent fellow in honest Regular Clothes. Had the conductor or any of the passengers realized that he was a dub in a dress-suit without the hat?
Once he thought that the real person in real evening clothes was looking at him. He turned his head and bore the probable insult in weak misery.
Too feeble for anything but thick suffering he was dragged on toward the theater, the opera, people in silk hats—toward Jeff Saxton and exposure.
But his success in bullying the tailor had taught him that dressing wasn't really a hidden lore to be known only by initiates; that some day he too might understand the black and white magic of clothes. His bruised self-consciousness healed. "I'll do—something," he determined. He waited, vacuously.
The Gilson party was not in the lobby when he arrived. He tore off his top-coat. He draped it over his felt hat, so that no one could be sure what sort of hat it shamefully concealed. That unveiling did expose him to the stare of everybody waiting in the lobby. He was convinced that the entire ticket-buying cue was glumly resenting him. Peeping down at the unusual white glare of his shirt-front, he felt naked and indecent.... "Nice kind o' vest. Must make 'em out of old pique collars."
He endured his martyrdom till his party arrived—the Gilsons, Claire, Jeff Saxton, and a glittering young woman whose name, Milt thought, was Mrs. Corey.
And Saxton wasn't wearing a high hat! He wore a soft one, and he didn't seem to care!
Milt straightened up, followed them through the manifold dangers of the lobby, down a perilous aisle of uptilted scornful faces, to a red narrow corridor, winding stairs, a secret passage, a mysterious dark closet—and he walked out into a room with one side missing, and, on that side, ten trillion people in a well, and nine trillion of them staring at him and noticing that he'd rented his dress-suit. Hot about the neck, he stumbled over one or two chairs, and was permitted to rest in a foolish little gilt chair in the farthest corner.
Once safe, he felt much better. Except that Jeff did put on white kid gloves, Milt couldn't see that they two looked so different. And neither of the two men in the next box wore gloves. Milt made sure of that comfort; he reveled in it; he looked at Claire, and in her loyal smile found ease.
He snarled, "She trusts you. Forget you're a dub. Try to be human. Hang it, I'm no greener at the opera than old horsehair sofa there would be at a garage."
There was something—— What was it he was trying to remember? Oh yes. When he'd worked in the Schoenstrom flour-mill, as engineer, at eighteen, the owner had tried to torment him (to "get his goat," Milt put it), and Milt had found that the one thing that would save him was to smile as though he knew more than he was telling. It did not, he remembered, make any difference whether or not the smile was real. If he merely looked the miller up and down, and smiled cynically, he was let alone.
Saxton was bending toward him, asking in honeyed respectfulness:
"Don't you think that the new school in music—audible pointillage, one might call it—mistakes cacophony for power?"
Milt smiled, paternally.
Saxton waited for something more. He dug the nail of his right middle finger into his thumb, looked thoughtful, and attacked again:
"Which do you like better: the new Italian music, or the orthodox German?"
Milt smiled like two uncles watching a clever baby, and patronized Saxton with, "They both have their points."
He saw that Claire was angry; but that the Gilsons and Mrs. Corey, flap-eared, gape-mouthed, forward-bending, were very proud of their little Jeff. He saw that, except for their clothes and self-conscious coiffures, they were exactly like a gang of cracker-box loafers at Heinie Rauskukle's badgering a new boy in town.
Saxton looked bad-tempered. Then Mrs. Corey bustled with her face and yearned at Milt, "Do tell me: what is the theme of the opera tonight. I've rather forgotten."
Milt ceased to smile. While all of them regarded him with interest he said clearly, "I haven't got the slightest idea. I don't know anything about music. Some day I hope I can get a clever woman like you to help me, Mrs. Corey. It must be great to know all about all these arts, the way you do. I wish you'd explain that—overture they call it, don't they?"
For some reason, Mr. Gilson was snickering, Mrs. Corey flushing, Claire looking well pleased. Milt had tried to be insulting, but had got lost in the intricacies of the insult. He felt that he'd better leave it in its apparently safe state, and he leaned back, and smiled again, as though he was waiting. Mrs. Corey did not explain the overture. She hastily explained her second maid, to Mrs. Gilson.
The opera was Il Amore dei Tre Re. Milt was bewildered. To him, who had never seen an opera, the convention that a girl cannot hear a man who is bellowing ten feet away from her, was absurd; and he wished that the singers would do something besides making their arms swim.
He discovered that by moving his chair forward, he could get within a foot of Claire. His hand slipped across, touched hers. She darted a startled backward glance. Her fingers closed tight about his, then restlessly snuggled inside his palm—and Milt was lost in enchantment.
Stately kings of blood-red cloaks and chrysoberyls malevolent in crowns of ancient and massy gold—the quick dismaying roll of drums and the shadow of passing banners below a tower—a woman tall and misty-veiled and pale with dreams—a world of spirit where the soul had power over unseen dominions—this he saw and heard and tasted in the music. What the actual plot was, or the technique of the singing, he did not know, but it bore him beyond all reality save the sweet, sure happiness of Claire's nestling hand.
He held her fingers so firmly that he could feel the pulse beat in them.
* * * * *
In the clamminess of his room, when the enchantment was gone, he said gravely:
"How much longer can I keep this up? Sooner or later I bust loose and smash little Jeff one in the snoot, and he takes the count, and I'm never allowed to see Claire again. Turn the roughneck out on his ear. I s'pose I'm vulgar. I s'pose that fellow Michael in Youth's Encounter wouldn't talk about snoots. I don't care, I'll—— If I poke Saxton one—— I'm not afraid of the kid-glove precinct any more. My brain's as good as theirs, give it a chance. But oh, they're all against me. And they bust the Athletic Union's wrestling rule that 'striking, kicking, gouging, hair-pulling, butting, and strangling will not be allowed.' How long can I go on being good-natured? When I do break loose——"
Slowly, beneath the moral cuff of his dress-shirt, Milt's fist closed in a brown, broad-knuckled lump, and came up in the gesture of a right to the jaw. But it came up only a foot. The hand opened, climbed to Milt's face, rubbed his temples, while he sighed:
"Nope. Can't even do that. Bigger game now. Used to could—used to be able to settle things with a punch. But I've got to be more—oh, more diplomatic now. Oh Lord, how lonely I get for Bill McGolwey. No. That isn't true. I couldn't stand Bill now. Claire took all that out of me. Where am I, where am I? Why did I ever get a car that takes a 36 x 6?"
THE CORNFIELD ARISTOCRAT
It was an innocent little note from Jeff Saxton; a polite, humble little note; it said that Jeff had a card to the Astoria Club, and wouldn't Milt please have lunch with him? But Milt dropped it on the table, and he walked round it as though it were a dictagraph which he'd discovered in the table drawer after happy, happy, hidden hours at counterfeiting.
It seemed more dangerous to refuse than to go. He browned the celebrated new shoes; he pressed the distinguished new trousers, with a light and quite unsatisfactory flatiron; he re-re-retied his best spotted blue bow—it persisted in having the top flaps too short, but the retying gave him spiritual strength—and he modestly clumped into the aloof brick portal of the Astoria Club on time.
He had never been in a club before.
He looked at the red tiled floor of the entrance hall; he stared through the hall into an immense lounge with the largest and softest chairs in the world, with oil portraits of distinguished old bucks, and ninety per cent. of the wealth and power of Seattle pulling its several mustaches, reading the P.I., and ignoring the lone intruder out in the hall.
A small Zulu in blue tights and brass buttons glared at Milt; and a large, soft, suave, insulting young man demanded, "Yes, sir?"
"Mr. G-g-geoffrey Saxton?" ventured Milt.
"Not in, sir." The "sir" sounded like "And you know it." The flaming guardian retired behind a narrow section of a bookkeeper's desk and ignored him.
"I'm to meet him for lunch," Milt forlornly persisted.
The young man looked up, hurt and annoyed at finding that the person was still to be dealt with.
"If you will wait in there?" he groaned.
Milt sat in there, which was a small blue tapestry room with hard chairs intended to discourage bill-collectors. He turned his hat round and round and round, till he saw Jeff Saxton, slim and straight and hard as the stick hooked over his arm, sailing into the hall. He plunged out after him, took refuge with him from the still unconvinced inspection of the hall-man. For twenty seconds, he loved Jeff Saxton.
And Jeff seemed to adore him in turn. He solicitously led Milt to the hat-checking counter. He showed Milt the lounge and the billiard room, through which Milt crept with erect shoulders and easy eyes and a heart simply paralyzed with fear that one of these grizzled clubmen with clipped mustaches would look at him. He coaxed Milt into a grill that was a cross between the Chinese throne-room and a Viennese Weinstube, and he implored his friend Milt to do him the favor of trying the "very fair" English mutton chops and potatoes au gratin.
"I did want to see you again before we go East, Daggett," he said pleasantly.
"Th-thanks. When do you go?"
"I'm trying to get Miss Boltwood to start soon now. The season is opening in the East. She does like your fine sturdy West, as I do, but still, when we think of the exciting new shows opening, and the dances, and the touch with the great world—— Oh, it does make one eager to get back."
"That's so," risked Milt.
"We, uh—— Daggett—— In fact, I'm going to call you Milt, as Claire does. You don't know what a pleasure it has been to have encountered you. There's a fine keen courage about you Western chaps that makes a cautious old fogy like me envious. I shall remember meeting you with a great deal of pleasure."
"Th-thanks. Been pleasure meet you."
"And I know Claire will, too."
Milt felt that he was being dealt with foully. He wanted to object to Saxton's acting as agent for Claire as incompetent, irrelevant, immaterial, and no foundation laid. But he could not see just where he was being led, and with Saxton glowing at him as warmly and greasily as the mutton chops, Milt could only smile wanly, and reflectively feel the table leg to see if it was loose enough to jerk out in case of need.
Saxton was being optimistic:
"In fact, Claire and I both hope that some day when you've finished your engineering course, we'll see you in the East. I wonder—— As I say, my dear fellow, I've taken the greatest fancy to you, and I do hope you won't think I'm too intimate if I say that I imagine that even in your charming friendship with Miss Boltwood, you've probably never learned what important people the Boltwoods are. I thought I'd tell you so that you could realize the privilege both you and I have in knowing them. Henry B. is—while not a man of any enormous wealth—regarded as one of the keenest intellects in New York wholesale circles. But beyond that, he is a scholar, and a man of the broadest interests. Of course the Boltwoods are too modest to speak of it, but he was chiefly instrumental in the establishment of the famous Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra. And his ancestors clear through—his father was a federal judge, and his mother's brother was a general in the Civil War, and afterwards an ambassador. So you can guess something of the position Claire holds in that fine, quiet, solid old Brooklyn set. Henry Ward Beecher himself was complimented at being asked to dine with the Boltwoods of his day, and——"
No, the table leg wouldn't come loose, so it was only verbally that the suddenly recovered Milt attacked:
"Certainly is nice to have one of those old families. It's something like—— As you say, you and I have gotten pretty well acquainted along the line, so I guess I can say it to you—— My father and his folks came from that same kind of family. Father's dad was a judge, back in Maine, and in the war, grand-dad was quite friendly with Grant."
This tribute of Milt to his grandsire was loyal but inaccurate. Judge Daggett, who wasn't a judge at all, but a J. P., had seen General Grant only once, and at the time the judge had been in company with all the other privates in the Fourteenth Maine.
"Dad was a pioneer. He was a doctor. He had to give up all this easy-going stuff in order to help open up the West to civilization, but I guess it was worth it. He used to do the hardest kind of operations, on kitchen tables, with his driver giving the chloroform. I'm mighty proud of him. As you say, it's kind of what you might call inspiring to belong to the old Pilgrim aristocracy."
Never before had Milt claimed relation to a group regarding which his only knowledge was the information derived from the red school-history to the effect that they all carried blunderbusses, put people in the stocks for whistling, and frequently said, "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?" But he had made his boast with a clear eye and a pleasant, superior, calm smile.
"Oh! Very interesting," grunted Saxton.
"Would you like to see grandfather's daguerreotype?"
"Oh, yes, yes, uh, thanks, that would be very interesting—— Do let me see it, when—— Uh, as I was saying, Claire doubtless has a tremendous social career before her. So many people expecting her to marry well. Of course she has a rather unusual combination of charm and intelligence and—— In fact I think we may both be glad that——"
"Yes. That's right. And the best thing about her is the way she can shake off all the social stuff and go camping and be a regular human being," Milt caressed.
"Um, uh, no doubt, no doubt, though—— Of course, though, that isn't an inherent part of her. I fancy she's been rather tired by this long trip, poor child. Of course she isn't very strong."
"That's right. Real pluck. And of course she'll get stronger by hiking. You've never seen her bucking a dangerous hill—I kind of feel that a person who hasn't seen her in the wilds doesn't know her."
"I don't want to be contradictory, old man, but I feel on the other hand that no one who has failed to see her at the Junior League Dances, in a Poiret frock, can know her! Come, come! Don't know how we drifted into this chorus of praise of Claire! What I wanted to ask was your opinion of the Pierce-Arrow. I'm thinking of buying one. Do you think that——"
All the way home Milt exulted, "I put it all over him. I wasn't scared by the 'Don't butt into the aristocracy, my young friend' stuff. I lied handsome. But—— Darn it, now I'll have to live up to my New England aristocracy.... Wonder if my grand-dad's dad was a hired man or a wood-sawyer?... Ne' mine; I'm Daggett of Daggett from now on." He bounded up to his room vaingloriously remarking, "I'm there with the ancestors. I was brought up in the handsome city of Schoenstrom, which was founded by a colony of Vermont Yankees, headed by Herman Skumautz. I was never allowed to play with the Dutch kids, and——" He opened the door. "—the Schoenstrom minister taught me Greek and was my bosom frien'——"
He stopped with his heart in his ankles. Lolling on the bed, grinning, waving a cigarette, was Bill McGolwey, proprietor of the Old Home Lunch, of Schoenstrom, Minnesota.
"Wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwhy where the heck did you come from?" stammered the deposed aristocrat to his bosom friend Bill.
"You old lemon-pie-faced, lollygagging, flap-footed, crab-nosed son of misery, gee, but it's good to see you, Milt!"
Bill was off the bed, wringing Milt's hand with simple joy, with perfect faith that in finding his friend all the troubles of life were over. And Milt was gloomily discovering the art of diplomacy. Bill was his friend, yes, but——
It was hard enough to carry his own self.
He pictured Jeff Saxton leering at the door, and while he pounded Bill's shoulder, and called him the name which, west of Chicago, is the token of hatred and of extreme gladness at meeting, he discovered that some one had stolen his stomach and left a piece of ice in its place.
They settled down on bed and chair, Bill's ears red with joy, while Milt demanded:
"How the deuce did you get here?"
"Well, tell you, old hoss. Schoenstrom got so darn lonely after you left, and when Ben and Heinie got your address and bought the garage, think's I, lez go off on a little bum."
Milt was realizing—and hating himself for realizing—that Bill's face was dirty, his hair linty, the bottoms of his trousers frayed masses of mud, while Bill chuckled:
"I figured out maybe I could get a job here in a restaurant, and you and me could room together. I sold out my good will in the Old Home Lunch for a hundred bucks. I was going to travel swell, riding the cushions. But Pete Swanson wanted me to go down to the Cities first, and we run into some pretty swift travelers in Minneapolis, and a couple of girls—saaaaaaay, kid, some class!"
Bill winked, and Milt—Milt was rather sick. He knew Bill's conception of class in young women. Was this the fellow he had liked so well? These the ideas which a few months ago he had taken as natural and extremely amusing?
"And I got held up in an alley off Washington Avenue, and they got the last twenty bones off'n me, and I was flatter 'n a pancake. So I says 'ish kabibble,' and I sneaks onto the blind baggage, and bums my way West. You'd 'a' died laughing to seen me throwing my feet for grub. Oh, I'm some panhandler! There was one Frau sicked her dog onto me, and I kicked him in the jaw and—— Oh, it was one swell hike."
Milt was trying to ignore the voice that was raging, "And now he expects to live on me, after throwing his own money away. The waster! The hobo! He'll expect to meet Claire—— I'd kill him before I'd let him soil her by looking at her. Him and his classy girls!" Milt tried to hear only the other inner voice, which informed him, "He looks at you so trustingly. He'd give you his shirt, if you needed it—and he wouldn't make you ask for it!"
Milt tried to be hearty: "What're you going to do, old kid?"
"Well, the first thing I'm going to do is to borrow ten iron-men and a pair of pants."
"You bet! Here she is. Haven't got any extra pants. Tell you: Here's another five, and you can get the pants at the store in the next block, this side of the street. Hustle along now and get 'em!" He chuckled at Bill; he patted his arm; he sought to hurry him out.... He had to be alone, to think.
But Bill kissed the fifteen dollars, carelessly rammed it into his pocket, crawled back on the bed, yawned, "What's the rush? Gosh, I'm sleepy. Say, Milt, whadyuh think of me and you starting a lunch-room here together? You got enough money out of the garage——"
"Oh no, noooo, gee, I'd like to, Bill, but you see, well, I've got to hold onto what little I've got so I can get through engineering school."
"Sure, but you could cash in on a restaurant—you could work evenings in the dump, and there'd be a lot of city sports hanging around, and we'd have the time of our lives."
"No, I—— I study, evenings. And I—— The fact is, Bill, I've met a lot of nice fellows at the university and I kind of go around with them."
"Aw, how d'you get that way? Rats, you don't want to go tagging after them Willy-boys. Damn dirty snobs. And the girls are worse. I tell you, Milt, these hoop-te-doodle society Janes may look all right to hicks like us, but on the side they raise more hell than any milliner's trimmer from Chi that ever vamped a rube burg."
"What do you know about them?"
"Now don't get sore. I'm telling you. I don't like to see any friend of mine make a fool of himself hanging around with a bunch that despises him because he ain't rich, that's all. Met any of the high-toned skirts?"
"Trot 'em up and lemme give 'em the once-over."
"We—we'll see about it. Now I got to go to a mathematics recitation, Bill. You make yourself comfortable, and I'll be back at five."
Milt did not have to go to a recitation. He marched out with briskness in his step, and a book under his arm; but when he reached the corner, the briskness proved to be spurious, and the mathematics book proved to be William Rose Benet's Merchants of Cathay, which Claire had given him in the Yellowstone, and which he had rescued from the wrecked bug.
He stood staring at it. He opened it with unhappy tenderness. He had been snatched from the world of beautiful words and serene dignity, of soaring mountains and companionship with Claire in the radiant morning, back to the mud and dust of Schoenstrom, from the opera to "city sports" in a lunch-room! He hated Bill McGolwey and his sneering assumption that Milt belonged in the filth with him. And he hated himself for not being enough of a genius to combine Bill McGolwey and Claire Boltwood. But not once, in his maelstrom of worry on that street corner, did he expect Claire to like Bill. Through all his youthful agonizing, he had enough common sense to know that though Claire might conquer a mountain pass, she could never be equal to the social demands of Schoenstrom and Bill McGolwey.
He wandered for an hour and came back to find that, in a "dry" city which he had never seen before, the crafty Bill had obtained a quart of Bourbon, and was in a state of unsteady beatitude. He wanted, he announced, to dance.
Milt got him into the community bathtub, and soused him under, but Bill's wet body was slippery, and Bill's merry soul was all for frolicsome gamboling, and he slid out of Milt's grasp, he sloshed around in the tub, he sprinkled Milt's sacred good suit with soapy water, and escaped, and in the costume of Adam he danced orientally in Milt's room, till he was seized with sleepiness and cosmic grief, and retired to Milt's bed in tears and nothing else.
The room dimmed, grew dark. The street lamps outside sent a wan, wavery gleam into the room. Evening crowds went by, and in a motion-picture theater a banging piano struck up. Bill breathed in choking snorts. Milt sat unmoving, feeling very old, very tired, too dumbly unhappy to be frightened of the dreadful coming hour when Claire and Jeff should hear of Bill, and discover Milt's real world.
He was not so romantically loyal, not so inhumanly heroic, that it can truthfully be reported that he never thought of getting rid of Bill. He did think of it, again and again. But always he was touched by Bill's unsuspecting trust, and shook his head, and sank again into the fog.
What was the use of trying to go ahead? Wasn't he, after all, merely a Bill McGolwey himself?
If he was, he wouldn't inflict himself on Claire.
For several minutes he gave up forever the zest of climbing.
When Bill awoke, brightly solicitous about the rest of the quart of Bourbon, and bouncingly ready to "go out and have a time," Milt loafed about the streets with him, showing him the city. He dully cut his classes, next morning, and took Bill to the wharves.
It was late in the afternoon, when they were lounging in the room, and Bill was admiring his new pants—he boasted of having bought them for three dollars, and pointed out that Milt had been a "galoot" to spend ten dollars for shoes—that some one knocked at the door. Sleepily expectant of his landlady, Milt opened it on Miss Claire Boltwood, Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Gilson, and Mr. Geoffrey Saxton.
Saxton calmly looked past him, at Bill, smiled slightly, and condescended, "I thought we ought to call on you, so we've dropped in to beg for tea."
Bill had stopped midway in scratching his head to gape at Claire. Claire returned the look, stared at Bill's frowsy hair, his red wrists, his wrinkled, grease-stained coat, his expression of impertinent stupidity. Then she glanced questioningly at Milt, who choked:
"Oh yes, yes, sure, glad see you, come in, get some tea, so glad see you, come in——"
"My friend Mr. McGolwey—I knew him in Schoenstrom—come on to Seattle for a while. Bill, these are some people I met along the road," Milt grumbled.
"Glad to meet 'em. Have a chair. Have two chairs! Say, Milt, y'ought to have more chairs if you're going to have a bunch of swells coming to call on you. Ha, ha, ha! Say, I guess I better pike out and give the folks a chance to chin with you," Bill fondly offered.
"Oh, sit down," Milt snapped at him.
They all sat down, four on the bed; and Milt's inner ear heard a mute snicker from the Gilsons and Saxton. He tried to talk. He couldn't. Bill looked at him and, perceiving the dumbness, gallantly helped out:
"So you met the kid on the road, eh? Good scout, Milt is. We always used to say at Schoenstrom that he was the best darn hand at fixing a flivver in seven townships."
"So you knew Mr. Daggett at home? Now isn't that nice," said Mrs. Gilson.
"Knew him? Saaaaay, Milt and I was brung up together. Why, him and I have bummed around together, and worked on farms, summers, and fished for bull-heads—— Ever catch a bull-head? Damnedest slipperiest fish you ever saw, and got horns that sting the stuffin's out of you and—— Say, I wonder if Milt's told you about the time we had at a barn-dance once? There was a bunch of hicks there, and I says, 'Say, kid, lez puncture their tires, and hide back of the manure pile, and watch the fun when they come out.' I guess maybe I was kind of stewed a little, tell the truth, but course Milt he don't drink much, hardly at all, nice straight kid if I do say so——"
"Bill!" Milt ordered. "We must have some tea. Here's six-bits. You run down to the corner grocery and get some tea and a little cream. Oh, you better buy three-four cups, too. Hustle now, son!"
"Attaboy! Yours to command, ladies and gents, like the fellow says!" Bill boomed delightedly. He winked at Jeff Saxton, airily spun his broken hat on his dirty forefinger, and sauntered out.
"Charming fellow. A real original," crooned Mrs. Gilson.
"Did he know your friend Mr. Pinky?" asked Saxton.
Before Milt could answer, Claire rose from the bed, inspected the Gilsons and Jeff with cold dislike, and said quietly to Milt, "The poor dear thing—he was dreadfully embarrassed. It's so good of you to be nice to him. I believe in being loyal to your old friends."
"Oh, so do I!" babbled Mrs. Gilson. "It's just too splendid. And we must do something for him. I'm going to invite Mr. Daggett and Mr.—Mr. McGollups, was it?—to dinner this evening. I do want to hear him tell about your boyhood. It must have been so interesting."
"It was," mused Milt. "It was poor and miserable. We had to work hard—we had to fight for whatever education we got—we had no one to teach us courtesy."
"Oh now, with your fine old doctor father? Surely he was an inspiration?" Jeff didn't, this time, trouble to hide the sneer.
"Yes. He was. He gave up the chance to be a rich loafer in order to save farmers' babies for fees that he never got."
"I'm sure he did. I wish I'd known him. We need to know men like that in this pink-frosting playing at living we have in cities," Claire said sweetly—not to Milt but to Jeff.
Mrs. Gilson had ignored them, waiting with the patience of a cat at a mouse-hole, and she went on, "But you haven't said you'd come, this evening. Do say you will. I don't suppose Mr. McGollups will care to dress for dinner?"
With saccharin devotion Milt yearned back, "No, Mrs. Gilson. No. Mr. McGolwey won't care to dress. He's eccentric."
"But you'll make him come?"
Milt was tactfully beginning to refuse when Gene Gilson at last exploded, turned purple, covered his dripping, too-red lips with his handkerchief.
Then, abruptly, Milt hurled at Mrs. Gilson, "All right. We'll come. Bill'll be awfully funny. He's never been out of a jerkwater burg in his life, hardly. He's an amusing cuss. He thinks I'm smart! He loves me like a dog. Oh, he's rich! Ha, ha, ha!"
Milt might have gone on ... if he had, Mr. and Mrs. Gilson would have gone away, much displeased. But Bill arrived, with some of the worst tea in the world, and four cups tastefully done in cupids' heads and much gilt.
Milt made tea, ignoring them, while Bill entertained the Gilsons and Saxtons with Rabelaisian stories of threshing-time when shirts prickly with chaff and gritty with dust stuck to sweat-dripping backs; of the "funny thing" of Milt and Bill being hired to move a garbage-pile and "swiping" their employer's "mushmelons"; of knotting shirts at the swimming-hole so that the bawling youngsters had to "chaw beef"; of drinking beer in the livery-stable at Melrose; of dropping the water-pitcher from a St. Klopstock hotel window upon the head of the "constabule" and escaping from him across the lean-to roof.
Mrs. Gilson encouraged him; Bill sat with almost closed eyes, glorying in the saga of small-town life; Saxton and Gilson did not conceal their contemptuous grins.
But Claire—— After nervously rubbing the tips of her thumbs with flickering agitated fingers, she had paid no attention to Bill and the revelation of Milt's rustic life; she had quietly gone to Milt, to help him prepare the scanty tea.
She whispered, "Never mind, dear. I don't care. It was all twice as much fun as being wheeled in lacy prams by cranky nurses, as Jeff and I were. But I know how you feel. Are you ashamed of having been a prairie pirate?"
"No, I'm not! We were wild kids—we raised a lot of Cain—but I'm glad we did."
"So am I. I couldn't stand it if you were ashamed. Listen to me, and remember little Claire's words of wisdom. These fools are trying—oh, they're so obvious!—they're trying to make me feel that the prim Miss Boltwood of Brooklyn Heights is a stranger to you. Well, they're succeeding in making me a stranger—to them!"
"Claire! Dear! You don't mind Bill?"
"Yes. I do. And so do you. You've grown away from him."
"I don't know but—— Today has been quite a test."
"Yes. It has. Because if I can stand your friend Mr. McGolwey——"
"Then you do care!"
"Perhaps. And if I think that he's, oh, not much good, and I remember that for a long time you just had him to play with, then I'm all the more anxious to make it up to you."
"Don't be sorry for me! I can't stand that! After all, it was a good town, and good folks——"
"No! No! I'm not sorry for you! I just mean, you couldn't have had so terribly much fun, after you were eighteen or so. Schoenstrom must have been a little dull, after very many years there. This stuff about the charm of backwoods villages—the people that write it seem to take jolly good care to stay in Long Island suburbs!"
"Claire!" He was whispering desperately, "The tea's most done. Oh, my dear. I'm crazy with this puttering around, trying to woo you and having to woo the entire Gilson tribe. Let's run away!"
"No; first I'm going to convince them that you are—what I know you are."
"But you can't."
"Huh! You wait! I've thought of the most beautiful, beastly cruel plan for the reduction of social obesity——"
Then she was jauntily announcing, "Tea, my dears. Jeff, you get the tooth-mug. Isn't this jolly!"
"Yes. Oh yes. Very jolly!" Jeff was thoroughly patronizing, but she didn't look offended. She made them drink the acid tea, and taste the chalk-like bread and butter sandwiches. She coaxed Bill to go on with his stories, and when the persistent Mrs. Gilson again asked the pariahs to come to dinner, Claire astonished Milt, and still more astonished Mrs. Gilson, by begging, "Oh yes, please do come, Milt."
He consented, savagely.
"But first," Claire added to Mrs. Gilson, "I want us to take the boys to—— Oh, I have the bulliest idea. Come, everybody. We're going riding."
"Uh, where——?" hinted Mr. Gilson.
"That's my secret. Come!"
Claire pranced to the door, herded all of them down to the limousine, whispered an address to the chauffeur.
Milt didn't care much for that ride. Bill was somewhat too evidently not accustomed to limousines. He wiped his shoes, caked with red mud, upon the seat-cushions, and apologized perspiringly. He said, "Gee whillikens, that's a dandy idee, telephone to bawl the shuffer out with," and "Are them flowers real, the bokay in the vase?"
But the Gilsons and Jeff Saxton were happy about it all—till the car turned from a main thoroughfare upon a muddy street of shacks that clung like goats to the sides of a high cut, a street unchanged from the pioneer days of Seattle.
"Good heavens, Claire, you aren't taking us to see Aunt Hatty, are you?" wailed Mrs. Gilson.
"Oh yes, indeed. I knew the boys would like to meet her."
"No, really, I don't think——"
"Eva, my soul, Jeff and you planned our tea party today, and assured me I'd be so interested in Milt's bachelor apartment—— By the way, I'd been up there already, so it wasn't entirely a surprise. It's my turn to lead." She confided to Milt, "Dear old Aunt Hatty is related to all of us. She's Gene's aunt, and my fourth cousin, and I think she's distantly related to Jeff. She came West early, and had a hard time, but she's real Brooklyn Heights—and she belongs to Gramercy Park and North Washington Square and Rittenhouse Square and Back Bay, too, though she has got out of touch a little. So I wanted you to meet her."
Milt wondered what unperceived bag of cement had hardened the faces of Saxton and the Gilsons.
Silent save for polite observations of Claire upon tight skirts and lumbering, the merry company reached the foot of a lurching flight of steps that scrambled up a clay bank to a cottage like a hen that has set too long. Milt noticed that Mrs. Gilson made efforts to remain in the limousine when it stopped, and he caught Gilson's mutter to his wife, "No, it's Claire's turn. Be a sport, Eva."
Claire led them up the badly listed steps to an unpainted porch on which sat a little old lady, very neat, very respectable, very interested, and reflectively holding in one ivory hand a dainty handkerchief and a black clay pipe.
"Hello, Claire, my dear. You've broken the relatives' record—you've called twice in less than a year," said the little old lady.
"How do you do, Aunt Harriet," remarked Mrs. Gilson, with great lack of warmth.
"Hello, Eva. Sit down on the edge of the porch. Those chickens have made it awful dirty, though, haven't they? Bring out some chairs. There's two chairs that don't go down under you—often." Aunt Harriet was very cheerful.
The group lugubriously settled in a circle upon an assemblage of wind-broken red velvet chairs and wooden stools. They resembled the aftermath of a funeral on a damp day.
Claire was the cheerful undertaker, Mrs. Gilson the grief-stricken widow.
Claire waved at Milt and conversed with Aunt Hatty in a high brisk voice: "This is the nice boy I met on the road that I think I told you about, Cousin Hatty."
The little old lady screwed up the delicate skin about her eyes, examined Milt, and cackled, "Boy, there's something wrong here. You don't belong with my family. Why, you look like an American. You haven't got an imitation monocle, and I bet you can't talk with a New York-London accent. Why, Claire, I'm ashamed of you for bringing a human being into the Boltwood-Gilson-Saxton tomb and expecting——"
Then was the smile of Mrs. Gilson lost forever. It was simultaneously torpedoed, mined, scuttled, and bombed. It went to the bottom without a ripple, while Mrs. Gilson snapped, "Aunt Hatty, please don't be vulgar."
"Me?" croaked the little old lady. She puffed at her pipe, and dropped her elbows on her knees. "My, ain't it hard to please some folks."
"Cousin Hatty, I want Milt to know about our families. I love the dear old stories," Claire begged prettily.
Mrs. Gilson snarled. "Claire, really——"
"Oh, do shut up, Eva, and don't be so bossy!" yelped the dear little old lady, in sudden and dismaying rage. "I'll talk if I want to. Have they been bullying you, Claire? Or your boy? I tell you, boy, these families are fierce. I was brought up in Brooklyn—went through all the schools—used to be able to misplay the piano and mispronounce French with the best of 'em. Then Gene's pa and I came West together—he had an idea he'd get rich robbing the Injuns of their land. And we went broke. I took in washing. I learned a lot. I learned a Gilson was just the same common stuff as a red-shirt miner, when he was up against it. But Gene's pa succeeded—there was something about practically stealing a fur schooner—but I never was one to tattle on my kin. Anyway, by the time Gene come along, his pa was rich, and that means aristocratic.
"This aristocracy west of Pittsburgh is just twice as bad as the snobbery in Boston or New York, because back there, the families have had their wealth long enough—some of 'em got it by stealing real estate in 1820, and some by selling Jamaica rum and niggers way back before the Revolutionary War—they've been respectable so long that they know mighty well and good that nobody except a Britisher is going to question their blue blood—and oh my, what good blueing third-generation money does make. But out here in God's Country, the marquises of milling and the barons of beef are still uneasy. Even their pretty women, after going to the best hair-dressers and patronizing the best charities, sometimes get scared lest somebody think they haven't either brains or breeding.
"So they're nasty to all low pussons like you and me, to make sure we understand how important they are. But lands, I know 'em, boy. I'm kept pensioned up here, out of the way, but I read the social notes in the papers and I chuckle—— When there's a big reception and I read about Mrs. Vogeland's pearls, and her beautiful daughter-in-law, I remember how she used to run a boarding-house for miners——
"Well, I guess it's just as shoddy in the East if you go far enough back. Claire, you're a nice comforting body, and I hate to say it, but the truth is, your great-grandfather was an hostler, and made his first money betting on horses. Now, my, I oughtn't to tell that. Do you mind, dearie?"
"Not a bit. Isn't it delightful that this is such a democratic country, with no castes," said Claire.
At this, the first break in the little old lady's undammable flood, Mrs. Gilson sprang up, yammering, "The rest of you may stay as long as you like, but if I'm to be home in time to dress for dinner——"
"Yes, and I must be going," babbled Saxton.
Milt noted that his lower lip showed white tooth-marks.
It must be admitted that all of them rather ignored the little old lady for a moment. Milt was apologetically hinting, "I don't really think Bill and I'd better come to dinner this evening, Mrs. Gilson. Thanks a lot but—— It's kind of sudden."
Claire again took charge. "Not at all, Milt. Of course you're coming. It was Eva herself who invited you. I'm sure she'll be delighted."
"Charmed," said Mrs. Gilson, with the expression of one who has swallowed castor oil and doubts the unity of the universe.
There was a lack of ease about the farewells to Aunt Harriet. As they all turned away she beckoned Milt and murmured, "Did I raise the dickens? I tried to. It's the only solace besides smoking that a moral old lady can allow herself, after she gets to be eighty-two and begins to doubt everything they used to teach her. Come and see me, boy. Now get out, and, boy, beat up Gene Gilson. Don't be scared of his wife's hoity-toity ways. Just sail in."
"I will," said Milt.
He had one more surprise before he reached the limousine.
Bill McGolwey, who had sat listening to everything and scratching his cheek in a puzzled way, seized Milt's sleeve and rumbled:
"Good-by, old hoss. I'm not going to butt in on your game and get you in Dutch. Gosh, I never supposed you had enough class to mingle with elittys like this gang, but I know when I'm in wrong. You were too darn decent to kick me out. Do it myself. You're best friend I ever had and—— Good luck, old man! God bless you!"
Bill was gone, running, stumbling, fleeing past Aunt Harriet's cottage, off into a sandy hilltop vacancy. The last Milt saw of him was when, on the skyline, Bill stopped for a glance back, and seemed to be digging his knuckles into his eyes.
Then Milt turned resolutely, marched down the stairs, said to his hosts with a curious quietness, "Thank you for asking me to dinner, but I'm afraid I can't come. Claire, will you walk a few blocks with me?"
During the half minute it had taken to descend the steps, Milt had reflected, with an intensity which forgot Bill, that he had been selfish; that he had thought only of the opinion of these "nice people" regarding himself, instead of understanding that it was his duty to save Claire from their enervating niceness. Not that he phrased it quite in this way. What he had been muttering was:
"Rotten shame—me so scared of folks' clothes that I don't stand up to 'em and keep 'em from smothering Claire. Lord, it would be awful if she settled down to being a Mrs. Jeff Saxton. Got to save her—not for myself—for her."
It may have been Aunt Harriet, it may have been Milt's resolution, but Mrs. Gilson answered almost meekly, "Well, if you think—— Would you like to walk, Claire?"
As he tramped off with Claire, Milt demanded, "Glad to escape?"
"Yes, and I'm glad you refused dinner. It really has been wearing, this trial by food."
"This is the last time I'll dare to meet the Gilsons."
"And I'll have to be going back East. I hope the Gilsons will forgive me, some day."
"I'm afraid you didn't win them over by Aunt Hatty!"
"No. They're probably off me for life. Oh, these horrible social complications—worse than any real danger—fire or earthquake——"
"Oh, these complications—they don't exist! We just make 'em, like we make rules for a card game. What the deuce do we care about the opinions of people we don't like? And who appointed these people to a fixed social position? Did the president make Saxton High Cockalorum of Dress-Suits or something? Why, these are just folks, the same as kings and coal-heavers. There's no army we've got to fight. There's just you and me—you and I—and if we stick together, then we have all society, we are all society!"
"Ye-es, but, Milt dear, I don't want to be an outcast."
"You won't be. In the long run, if you don't take these aristocrats seriously, they'll be all the more impressed by you."
"No. That sounds cheering, in stories and these optimistic editorials in the magazines, but it isn't true. And you don't know how pleasant it is to be In. I've always been more or less on the inside, and thought outsiders dreadful. But—— Oh, I don't care! I don't care! With you—I'm happy. That's all I know and all I want to know. I've just grown up. I've just learned the greatest wisdom—to know when I'm happy. But, Milt dear—— I say this because I love you. Yes, I do love you. No, don't kiss me. Yes, it is too—— It's far too public. And I want to talk seriously. You can't have any idea how strong social distinctions are. Don't despise them just because you don't know them."
"No. I won't. I'll learn. Probably America will get into the war. I'll be an engineering officer. I'll learn this social dope from the college-boy officers. And I'll come to Brooklyn with shoulder-straps and bells on and—— Will you be waiting?"
"Oh—yes—— But, Milt! If the war comes, you must be very careful not to get shot!"
"All right, if, you insist. Good Lord, Claire. I don't know what put it into my head but—— Do you realize that a miracle has happened? We're no longer Miss Boltwood and a fellow named Daggett. We have been, even when we've liked each other, up to today. Always there's been a kind of fence between us. We had to explain and defend ourselves and scrap—— But now we're us, and the rest of the world has disappeared, and——"
"And nothing else matters," said Claire.
THE BEGINNING OF A STORY
It was the farewell to Claire and Jeff Saxton, a picnic in the Cascades, near Snoqualmie Falls—a decent and decidedly Milt-less fiesta. Mrs. Gilson was going to show Claire that they were just as hardy adventurers as that horrid Daggett person. So she didn't take the limousine, but merely the seven-passenger Locomobile with the special body.
They were ever so rough and wild. They had no maid. The chauffeur was absolutely the only help to the Gilsons, Claire, Jeff, and the temporarily and ejaculatorily nature-loving Mrs. Betz in the daring task of setting out two folding camp-tables, covering them with a linen cloth, and opening the picnic basket. Claire had to admit that she wished that she could steal the picnic basket for Milt. There were vacuum bottles of hot coffee. There were sandwiches of anchovy and pate de foie gras. There were cream cakes with almonds hidden in the suave cream, and there was a chicken salad with huge chunks of pure white meat wallowing in a sea of mayonnaise.
When the gorging was done and the cigarettes brought out (the chauffeur passed a spirit lamp), they stretched on rubber blankets, and groaned a little, and spoke well of nature and the delights of roughing it.
"What is it? What's wrong? They're so—oh, so polite. They don't mean what they say and they don't dare to say what they mean. Is that it?" worried Claire.
She started. She discovered that she was looking at a bristle of rope-colored hair and a grin projected from the shelter of a manzanita bush.
"For the——" she gasped. She was too startled to be able to decide what was for-the. She spoke judiciously to Jeff Saxton about Upper Montclair, the subway, and tennis. She rose to examine the mountains, strolled away, darted down a gully, and pounced on Milt Daggett with:
"How in heaven's name——"
"Found out where you-all were going. Look! Got a bug! Rented it. Come on! Let's duck! Drive back with me!" At the end of the gully was a new Teal bug, shinier than the ancient lost chariot, but equally gay and uncomfortable.
"Can't. Like to, but—— Be awfully rude to them. Won't do that—not more than is good for their souls—even for you. Now don't be sulky."
"I won't. Nev' be sulky again, because you're crazy about me, and I don't have to be sulky."
"Oh, I am, am I! Good heavens, the inconceivable conceit of the child!"
She turned her back. He darted to her, caught her hands behind her, kissed her hair, and whispered, "You are!"
"I am not!"
"Well then, you're not. Lord, you're sweet! Your hair smells like cinnamon and clean kittens. You'd rather go bumping off in my flivver than sailing in that big Loco they've got there."
"Yes," defiantly, "I would, and I'm ashamed of myself. I'm a throw-back to my horrid ancestor, the betting hostler."
"Probably. I'm a throw-back to my ancestor the judge. I'll train you to meet my fine friends."
"Well—upon—my—word—I—— Oh, do stop being idiotic. We talk like children. You reduce me to the rank of a gibbering schoolgirl. And I like it! It's so—oh, I don't know—so darn human, I suppose. Now hurry—kiss me, and get out, before they suspect."
"I'll accidentally meet your car along the road. Invite you to ride. All right?"
"Yes. Do. Oh, we are two forlorn babes in the woods! G'-by."
She sauntered back to the picnic, and observed, "What is that purple flower up on the mountain side?"
The big car was sedately purring back when it was insulted by an intermediate host of a machine that came jumping out of a side road. The vulgar driver hailed them with uncouth howling. The Gilsons' chauffeur stopped, annoyed.
"Why, hello folks," bawled the social bandit.
"Oh. How do you do," refuted Mrs. Gilson.
Jeff Saxton turned a ripe purple.
"How do you like my new bug, Claire? Awful little object. But I can make fifty an hour. Come and try it, Claire, can't you?"
"Why——" Claire was obviously shocked by the impropriety of the suggestion. She looked at Mrs. Gilson, who was breathing as though she was just going under the ether. Claire said doubtfully, "Well—— If you can get me right back to the house——"
"Sure," agreed Milt.
When the Loco was gone, Milt drove the bug to the side of the road, yanked up the emergency brake, and carefully kissed the girl who was snuggled down into the absurd low tin-sided seat.
"Do we have to get back soon?" he begged.
"Oh, I don't care if we never get back. Let's shoot up into the mountains. Side road. Let's pretend we're driving across the continent again."
Firs dashing by—rocks in the sunshine—clouds jaunty beyond the inviting mouth of a mountain pass—even the ruts and bumps and culverts—she seemed a part of them all. In the Gilsons' huge cars she had been shut off from the road, but in this tiny bug, so close to earth, she recovered the feeling of struggle, of triumph over difficulties, of freedom unbounded. And she could be herself, good or bad, ignorant or wise, with this boy beside her. All of which she expressed in the most eloquent speech she had ever uttered, namely:
And, to herself, "Golly, it's such a relief not to have to try to be gracious and aphoristic and repartistic and everything with Jeff."
And, "But I wonder if I am aphoristic and subtle? I wonder if when she gets the rice-powder off, Claire isn't a lot more like Milt than she thought?"
And, aloud again, "Oh, this is——"
"Yump. It sure is," Milt agreed.
They had turned from a side-road into a side-side-road. They crossed an upland valley. The fall rains had flooded a creek till it had cut across the road, washed through the thin gravel, left across the road a shallow violent stream. Milt stopped abruptly at its margin.
"Here's where we turn back, I guess," he sighed.
"Oh no! Can't we get across? It's only a couple of feet deep, and gravel bottom," insisted the restored adventurer.
"Yes, but look at the steep bank. Never get up it."
"I don't care. Let's try it! We can woggle around and dig it out somehow. I bet you two-bits we can," said the delicate young woman whom Mrs. Gilson was protecting.
"All right. In she goes!"
The bug went in—shot over the bank, dipped down till the little hood sloped below them as though they were looping the loop, struck the rushing water with a splash which hurled yellow drops over Claire's rose jersey suit, lumbered ahead, struck the farther bank, pawed at it feebly, rose two inches, slipped back, and sat there with the gurgling water all around it, turned into a motor-boat.