"Miss Gault," suggested Marden in lofty reproof, "suppose you leave the interrogatory to me, if you please? Yes, I recollect that notice. My attention was called to it at the time. But," again addressing Link, "why did you call 'Glenmuir Cavalier' a 'BIRD dog'? Was it to throw us off the track or—"
"Don't know no What's-His-Name Cav'lier!" snapped Ferris. "This dawg's name is Chum. Like you c'n see in my entry blank, what's layin' on the table in front of you. I adv'tised Chum as a bird dawg because I s'posed he WAS a bird dawg. I ain't a sharp on dawgs. He's the fust one ever I had. If he ain't a bird dawg, 'tain't my fault. He looks more like one than like 'tother breeds I'd seen. So I called him one."
"There is no need to raise your voice at me!" rebuked the colonel. "I am disposed to accept your explanation. But if you read the local papers you must have seen—"
"I did read 'em," said Ferris. "I read 'em steady for a month or more, to see was there was adv'tisement fer a lost dawg. Nary an adv'tisement did I see excep' one fer a 'sable' collie. 'Sable' means 'black.' I know, because our dominie told me so. I asked him, when I see that piece in the paper. Chum ain't black, nor nowheres near black. So I knowed it couldn't be him. What d'j' want of me, anyhow?" he demanded once more.
"Again, I am disposed to credit your explanation," boomed the colonel, frowning down a ripple of giggles that had its rise in Miss Gault. "And I am disposed to acquit you of consciously dishonest intent. I am glad to do so. Here is the situation: Early last spring, Mr. Gault," indicating the sport-suit wearer at his left, "bought from the famous Glenmuir Collie Kennels, on the Hudson, an unusually fine young collie—a dog for which connoisseurs predicted a great future in the show ring. He purchased it as a gift for his daughter, Miss Marion Gault."
He inclined his head slightly toward the girl; then proceeded:
"As Mr. Glenmuir was disbanding his kennel, Mr. Gault was able to secure the dog—Glenmuir Cavalier. He started for Craigswold, with the dog on the rear seat of the car. At first he kept a hand on the dog's collar, but as the collie made no attempt to escape, he soon turned around—he was in the front seat—and paid no more attention to him. Just outside of Suffern, he looked back—to find Cavalier had disappeared. He advertised, and made all possible efforts to locate the dog. But he could get no clew to him, until to-day. Seeing this dog of yours in the show ring, he recognized him at once."
The pompously booming voice, with its stilted diction, ceased. All eyes were upon Link Ferris. The mountaineer, stung to life by the silence and the multiple gaze, came out of his trance of shock.
"Then—then," he stuttered, forcing the words from a throat sanded by sudden dread, "then Chum rightly b'longs to this man?"
"Quite so!" assented Marden, in some relief. "I am glad you grasp the point so readily. Mr. Gault has talked the matter over with me, and he is taking a remarkably broad and generous view of the case if I may say so. He is not only willing that you should keep the cup and the cash prize which you have won to-day, but he is also ready to pay to you the seventy-five dollar reward he offered for the return of Glenmuir Cavalier. I repeat, this strikes me as most gener—"
"NO!" yelled Link, a spasm of foreseen loneliness sweeping over him. "NO!! He can't have him! Nobody can! Why Chum's my dawg! I've learned him to fetch cows an' shake hands an'—an' everything! An' he drug me out'n the lake, when I was a-drowndin'! An' he done a heap more'n that fer me! He's drug me up to my feet, out'n wuthlessness, too; an' he's learned me that livin' is wuth while! He's my—my—he's my dawg!" he finished lamely, his scared eyes sweeping the circle of faces in panic appeal.
"That will do, Ferris!" coldly exhorted the colonel. "We wish no scenes here. You will take this seventyfive dollar check which Mr. Gault has so kindly made out for you, and you will go."
"Leavin' Chum behind?" babbled Ferris, aghast. "Not leavin' Chum behind? PLEASE not!"
He pulled himself together with an effort that drove his nails bitingly into his palms and left his face gray. He saw the uselessness of pleading with these people of polished iron, who could not understand his fearful loss. For the sake of Chum—for the sake of the self-respecting man he himself had become—he would not let himself go to pieces. Forcing his shaken voice to a dry steadiness, he addressed the uneasily squirming Gault.
"What d'j' you pay for Chum when you bought him off'n that Hudson River feller—that Glenmuir chap?" he demanded.
"Why, as a matter of fact," responded Gault, "as Colonel Marden has told you, I couldn't have hoped to get such a promising collie at any price it—"
"What d'j' you pay for him?" insisted Link, his voice harsh and unconsciously domineering as a vague new hope dawned on his troubled mind.
"I paid six hundred dollars," answered Gault shortly, in annoyance at the boor's manner.
"Good!" approved Link, "That gives us suthin' to go on. I'll pay you six hundred dollars fer him back. This hundred dollars in gold an' this yer silver cup an' seven dollars more I got with me—to bind the bargain. An' a second mortgage on my farm fer the rest. Fer as much of the rest," he amended, "as I ain't got ready cash for."
In his stark earnestness, Link's rough voice sounded more hectoring and unpleasant than before. Gault, unused to such talk from the alleged "peasantry," resolved to cut short the haggling.
"Sell for six hundred a dog that's cleaned up 'best in the show?'" he rasped. "No, thank you. Leighton says Cavalier will go far. One man, ten minutes ago, offered me a thousand for him."
"A thousan'?" repeated Ferris, scared at the magnitude of the sum—then, rallying, he asked:
"What WILL you let me have him fer, then? Set a price, can't you?"
"The dog is not for sale," curtly replied Gault, busying himself with the lighting of a cigarette.
"Take Mr. Gault's check and go," commanded Marden, thrusting the slip of paper at Link. "I think there is nothing more to say. I have an appointment at—"
He hesitated. Regardless of the others' presence, Ferris dropped to one knee beside the uncomprehending dog. With his arm about Chum's neck, he bent close to the collie's ear and whispered:
"Good-by, Chummie! It's good-by, fer keeps, too. Don't you get to thinkin' I've gone an' deserted you, nor got tired of you, nor nothnn', Chum. Because I'd a dam' sight ruther leave one of my two legs here than to leave you. I—I guess only Gawd rightly knows all you done fer me, Chum. But I ain't a-goin' to ferget none of it. Lord, but it's goin' to be pretty turrible, to home, without you!" He got to his feet, winking back a mist from his red eyes, and turning blindly toward the door.
"Here!" boomed Marden after him. "You've forgotten your check."
"I don't aim to take no measly money fer givin' up the only friend I got!" snarled Link over his shoulder. "Keep it—fer a tip!"
It was a good exit line. But it was spoiled. Because, as Ferris reached the door and groped for its knob, Chum was beside him—glad to get out of this uncongenial assembly and to be alone with the master who seemed so unhappy and so direly in need of consolation. Link stiffened to his full height. With one hand lovingly laid on the collie's silken head, he mumbled:
"No, Chum, you can't come along. Back, boy! Stay HERE!"
Lowering at Gault, he added:
"He ain't never been hit, nor yet swore at. An' he don't need to be. Treat him nice, like he's used to bein' treated. An' don't get sore on him if he mopes fer me, jes' at fust. Because he's sure to. Dogs ain't like folks. They got hearts. Folks has only got souls. I guess dogs has the best of it, at that."
Ferris swung open the door and stumbled out, not trusting himself for a backward glance at the wistfully grieved dog he had left behind.
Lurchingly he made off, across the lawn and out through the wicket. He was numb and sick. He moved mechanically and with no conscious power of thought or of locomotion.
Out in the highroad, a homing instinct guided his leaden feet in the direction of Hampton. And he plodded dazedly the interminable four miles that separated him from his desolate farm.
As he turned in at his own gate, he was aware of a poignant dread that pierced his numbness. And he knew it for a dread of entering the house and of finding no one to welcome him. Setting his teeth he went forward, unlocked the door and stamped into the silent kitchen.
Upon the table he dumped the paper-swathed cup he had been carrying unnoticed under his arm. Beside it he threw the little purse full of gold pieces and the wad of prize ribbons. Stepping back, his foot struck something. He looked down and saw it was a gay-colored rubber ball he had bought, months ago, for Chum—the dog's favorite plaything.
His face twisting, Link snatched up the ball and went out onto the steps to throw it far out of sight; that it might no more remind him of the pet who had so often coaxed him to toss it for retrieval.
Ferris hurled the ball far out into the garden. As the missile left his hand an exultant bark re-echoed through the silence of the sunset. Chum, who had been trotting demurely up the walk, sprang gleefully in pursuit of the ball, and presently came galloping back to the dazedly incredulous Link, with the many-colored sphere of rubber between his jaws.
Chum had had no trouble at all in catching his master's trail and following it home. He would have overtaken the slow-slouching Ferris, had he been able to slip out of the clubhouse sooner. And now it pleased him to be welcomed by this evident invitation to a game of ball.
Link gave a gulping cry and buried both hands in the collie's ruff, staring down at the dancing dog in an agony of rapture. Then, all at once, his muscles tensed, and his newly flushed face went green-white again.
"I—I guess we got to play it square, Chum!" he muttered aloud, with something like a groan. "I was blattin' to 'em, up there, how you'd made a white man of me. An' a reg'lar white man don't keep what ain't his own prop'ty. Come along, Chummie!"
His jaw very tense, his back painfully stiff, Link strode heavily down the lane and out into the highroad. Chum, always eager for a walk with his god, frisked about him in delight.
He had traversed the bulk of the distance to Craigswold, the dog beside him, when he remembered that he had left his horse and buggy at the livery stable there in the morning. Well, that would save his aching feet a four-mile walk home. In the meantime—
He and Chum stepped to the roadside to avoid a fast-traveling little motor car which was bearing down on them from the direction of Craigswold.
The car did not pass them. Instead, it came to a gear-racking halt close beside Ferris. Link, glancing up in dull lack of interest, beheld Gault and the latter's daughter staring down at him.
"Chum came home," said Ferris, scowling at them. "He trailed me. Don't lick him fer it! He's only a dog, an' he didn't know no better. I was bringin' him back to you."
The girl looked sharply at her father. Gault fidgeted uneasily, as he had done once or twice that afternoon in the clubhouse. And he avoided his daughter's gaze. So she turned her level eyes on Link.
"Mr. Ferris," she said very quietly, "do you mean to say, when this dog came back to you, you were actually going to return him to us, instead of hiding him somewhere till the search was over?"
"I'm here, ain't I?" countered Ferris defiantly.
"But why?" she insisted. "WHY?"
"Because I'm a fool, I s'pose," he growled. "I guess Chum wouldn't care much 'bout livin' with a thief. Take him up there with you on the seat. Don't let him fall out. An'"—his voice scaling a half octave in its pain—"keep him to home after this. I ain't no measly angel. I can't swear I'd have the grit to fetch him back another time."
He stopped, to note a curious phenomenon. There were actually tears in the girl's big grave eyes. Link wondered why. Then she said:
"Cavalier isn't my father's dog. He is mine. My father gave him to me when he bought him, last spring. Colonel Marden seemed to have forgotten that to-day. And I didn't want to start a squabble by reminding him of it. After all, it's my father's affair, and mine. Nobody else's. My father got me another collie last spring to take Cavalier's place. A collie I'm ever so fond of. So I don't need Cavalier. I don't want him. I tried to find you to tell you so. But you had gone. So I got my father to drive me to your place. We'd have started sooner, but Cavalier got away. And we waited to look for him—to bring him along."
"Bring him along?" mutteringly echoed the blankbrained Link. "What fer?"
"Why," laughed the girl, "because your house is where he belongs and where he is going to live. Just as he has been living all summer."
Ferris caught his breath in a choked wheeze of unbelieving ecstasy.
"Gawd!" he breathed. "GAWD!"
Then, he stammered brokenly
"They—they don't seem no right words to—to thank you in, Ma'am. But maybe you und'stand what I'd want to say if I could?"
"Yes," she said gently. "I think I understand. I understood from the minute I saw you and the dog together. That's why I decided I didn't want him. That's why I—"
"An' you'll get that thousand dollars!" cried Link, his fingers buried rapturously in Chum's fur. "Ev'ry cent of it. I—"
"I think," interrupted the girl, winking very fast. "I think I've got what I wanted, already. My father doesn't want the money either. Do you, Dad?"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, stop rubbing it in!" fumed Gault. "Come on home! It's getting cold. I ought to thank the Lord for not having you anywhere near me in Wall Street, girl! You'd send me under the hammer in a week."
He kicked the accelerator, and the little car whizzed off in the twilight.
"Chum," observed Ferris, gaping after it. "Chum, I guess the good Lord built that gal the same day He built YOU. If He did—well, He sure done one grand day's work!"
Luck had come at last to the Ferris farm. Link's cash went into improvements on the place, instead of going into the deteriorating of his inner man. And he worked the better. A sulky man is ever prone to be an inefficient man. And Link no longer sulked.
All this-combined with a wholesale boom in local agriculture, and especially in truck gardening—had wrought wonders in Link's farm and in Link's bank account. Within three years of Ferris's meeting with Chum the place's last mortgage was wiped out and a score of needed repairs and improvements were installed. Also the man had a small but steadily growing sum to his credit in a Paterson savings bank.
Life on the farm was mighty pleasant, nowadays. Work was hard, of course, but it was bringing results that made it more than worth while. Ferris and his dog were living on the fat of the land. And they were happy.
Then came the interruption that had been inevitable from the very first.
A taciturn and eternally dead-broke man, in a rural region, need not fear intrusion on his privacy. Convivial folk make detours round him, as if he were a mud puddle. Thriftier and more respectable neighbors eye him askance or eye him not at all.
But when a meed of permanent success comes to such a man he need no longer be lonely unless he so wills. Which is not cynicism, but common sense. The convivial element will still fight shy of him. But he is welcomed into the circle of the respectable.
So it was with Link Ferris. Of old he had been known as a shiftless and harddrinking mountaineer with a sour farm that was plastered with mortgages. Now, he had cleared off his mortgages and had cleaned up his farm; and he and his home exuded an increasing prosperity.
People, meeting him in the nearby village of Hampton or at church, began to treat him with a consideration that the long-aloof farmer found bewildering.
Yet he liked it rather than not; being at heart a gregarious soul. And with gruff friendliness he met the advances of well-to-do neighbors who in old days had scarce favored him with a nod.
The gradual change from the isolated life of former years did not make any sort of a hit with Chum. The collie had been well content to wander through the day's work at his master's heels; to bring in the sheep and the cattle from pasture; to guard the farm from intruders—human or otherwise.
In the evenings it had been sweet to lounge at Link's feet, on the little white porch, in the summer dusk; or to lie in drowsy content in front of the glowing kitchen stove on icy nights when the gale screeched through the naked boughs of the dooryard trees and the snow scratched hungrily at the window panes.
Now, the dog's sensitive brain was aware of a subtle alteration. He did not object very much to the occasional visits at the house of other farmers and townsfolk during the erstwhile quiet evenings, although he had been happier in the years of peaceful seclusion.
But he grieved at his master's increasingly frequent absences from home. Nowadays, once or twice a week, Link was wont to dress himself in his best as soon as the day's work was done, and fare forth to Hampton for the evening.
Sometimes he let Chum go with him in these outings. Oftener of late he had said, as he started out:
"Not to-night, Chummie. Stay here."
Obediently the big dog would lay himself down with a sigh on the porch edge; his head between his white little forepaws; his sorrowful brown eyes following the progress of his master down the lane to the highroad.
But he grieved, as only a sensitive highbred dog can grieve—a dog who asks nothing better of life than permission to live and to die at the side of the man he has chosen as his god; to follow that god out into rain or chill; to starve with him, if need be; to suffer at his hands—in short, to do or to be anything except to be separated from him.
Link Ferris had gotten into the habit of leaving Chum alone at home, oftener and oftener of late, as his own evening absences from the farm grew more and more frequent.
He left Chum at home because She did not like dogs.
"She" was Dorcas Chatham, the daughter of Hampton's postmaster and general storekeeper.
Old Man Chatham in former days would have welcomed Cal Whitson, the official village souse, to his home as readily as he would have admitted the ne'er-do-well Link Ferris to that sanctuary. But of late he had noted the growing improvement in Link's fortunes, as evidenced by his larger store trade, his invariable cash payments and the frequent money orders which went in his name to the Paterson savings bank.
Wherefore, when Dorcas met Link at a church sociable and again on a straw ride and asked him to come and see her some time, her sire made no objection. Indeed he welcomed the bashful caller with something like an approach to cordiality.
Dorcas was a calm-eyed, efficient damsel, more than a little pretty, and with much repose of manner. Link Ferris, from the first, eyed her with a certain awe. When a mystic growing attraction was added to this and when it in turn merged into love, the sense of awe was not lost. Rather it was strengthened.
In all his thirty-one lean and lonely years Link had never before fallen in love. At the age when most youths are sighing over some wonder girl, he had been too busy fighting off bankruptcy and starvation to have time or thought for such things.
Wherefore, when love at last smote him it smote him hard. And it found him woefully unprepared for the battle.
He knew nothing of women. He did not know, for example, what the average youth finds out in his teens—that grave eyes and silent aloofness and lofty self-will and icy pietism in a maiden do not always signify that she is a saint and that she must be worshiped as such. Ferris had no one to tell him that far oftener these signs point merely to stupid narrowness and to lack of ideas.
Dorcas was clever at housework. She was quietly self-assured. She was good to look upon. She was not like any of the few girls Link had met. Wherefore he built for her a sacred shrine in his innermost heart; and he knelt before her image there.
If Ferris found her different from the other Hampton girls, Dorcas found him equally different from the local swains she knew. She recognized his hidden strength. The maternal element in her nature sympathized with his loneliness and with the marks it had left upon his soul.
For the rest—he was neither a village cut-up like Con Skerly, nor a solemn mass of conceit like Royal Crews; nor patronizing like young Lawyer Wetherell; nor vaguely repulsive like old Cap'n Baldy Todd, who came furtively a-courting her. Link was different. And she liked him. She liked him more and more.
Once her parents took Dorcas and her five-year-old sister, Olive, on a Sunday afternoon ramble, which led eventually to the Ferris farm. Link welcomed the chance callers gladly, and showed them over the place. Dorcas's housewifely eye rejoiced in the well-kept house, even while she frowned inwardly at its thousand signs of bachelor inefficiency. The stock and the crops, too, spoke of solid industry.
But she shrank back in sudden revolt as a huge tawny collie came bounding toward her from the fold where he had just marshaled the sheep for the night. The dog was beautiful. And he meant her no harm. He even tried shyly to make friends with the tall and grave-eyed guest. Dorcas saw all that. Yet she shrank from him with instinctive fear—in spite of it.
As a child she had been bitten—and bitten badly—by a nondescript mongrel that had been chased into the Chatham backyard by a crowd of stone-throwing boys, and which she had sought to oust with a stick from its hiding place under the steps. Since then Dorcas had had an unconquerable fear and dislike of dogs. The feeling was unconquerable because she had made no effort to conquer it. She had henceforth judged all dogs by the one whose teeth marks had left a lifelong scar on her white forearm.
She had the good breeding not to let Ferris see her distaste for his pet that he was just then exhibiting so proudly to the guests. Her shrinking was imperceptible, even to a lover's solicitous eye. But Chum noted it. And with a collie's odd sixth sense he knew this intruder did not like him.
Not that her aversion troubled Chum at all; but it puzzled him. People as a rule were effusively eager to make friends with Chum. And—being ultraconservative, like the best type of collie—he found their handling and other attentions annoying. He had taken a liking to Dorcas, at sight. But since she did not return this liking Chum was well content to keep away from her.
He was the more content, because five-year-old Olive had flung herself, with loud squeals of rapture, bodily on the dog; and had clasped her fat little arms adoringly round his massive furry throat in an ecstasy of delight.
Chum had never before been brought into such close contact with a child. And Link watched with some slight perturbation the baby's onslaught. But in a moment Ferris's mind was at rest.
At first touch of the baby's fingers the collie had become once and for all Olive's slave. He fairly reveled in the discomfortingly tight caress. The tug of the little hands in his sensitive neck fur was bliss to him. Wiggling all over with happiness he sought to lick the chubby face pressed so tight against his ruff. From that instant Chum had a divided allegiance. His human god was Ferris. But this fluffy pink-and-white youngster was a mighty close second in his list of deities.
Dorcas looked on, trembling with fear; as her little sister romped with the adoring dog. And she heaved a sigh of relief when at last they were clear of the farm without mishap to the baby. For Olive had been dearer to Dorcas, from birth, than anyone or anything else on earth. To the baby sister alone Dorcas ceased to be the grave-eyed and self-assured Lady of Quality, and became a meek and worshiping devotee.
When Link Ferris at last mustered courage to ask Dorcas Chatham to marry him his form of proposal would have been ruled out of any novel or play. It consisted chiefly of a mouthful of half-swallowed, half-exploded words, spoken all in one panic breath, to the accompaniment of a mortal fear that shook him to the marrow.
Any other words, thus mouthed and gargled, would have required a full college of languages to translate them. But the speech was along a line perfectly familiar to every woman since Eve. And Dorcas understood. She would have understood had Link voiced his proposal in the Choctaw dialect instead of a slurringly mumbled travesty on English.
The man's stark earnestness of entreaty sent a queer flutter to the very depths of her calm soul. But the flutter failed to reach or to titillate the steady eyes. Nor did it creep into the level and self-possessed voice, as Dorcas made quiet answer:
"Yes. I like you better than any other man I know. And I'll marry you, if you're perfectly sure you care for me that way."
No, it was not the sort of reply Juliet made to the same question. It is more than doubtful that Cleopatra answered thus, when Antony offered to throw away the world for her sake. But it was a wholly correct and self-respecting response. And Dorcas had been rehearsing it for nearly a week.
Moreover, words are of use, merely as they affect their hearers. And all the passion poetry of men and of angels could not have thrilled Link Ferris as did Dorcas's correct and demure assent to his frenziedly gabbled plea. It went through the lovesick man's brain and heart like the breath of God.
And thus the couple became engaged.
With only a slight diminishing of his earlier fear did Link seek out Old Man Chatham to obtain his consent to the match. Dizzy with joy and relief he listened to that village worthy's ungracious assent also secretly rehearsed for some days.
For the best part of a month thereafter Link Ferris floated through a universe of roseate lights and soft music.
Then came the jar of awakening.
It was one Saturday evening, a week or so before the date set for the wedding. Dorcas broached a theme which had been much in her mind since the beginning of the engagement. She approached it very tactfully indeed, leading up to it in true feminine fashion by means of a cunningly devised series of levels which would have been the despair of a mining engineer. Having paved the way she remarked carelessly:
"John Iglehart was at the store to-day, father says. He's crazy about that big collie of yours."
Instantly Link was full of glad interest. It had been a sorrow to him that Dorcas did not like dogs. She had explained her dislike—purely on general principles—early in their acquaintance, and had told him of its origin. Link was certain she would come to love Chum, on intimate acquaintance. In the interim he did not seek to force her liking by bringing the collie to the Chatham house when he called.
Link did not believe in crossing a bridge until he came to it. There would be plenty of time for Dorcas to make friends with Chum in the long and happy days to come. Yet, now, he rejoiced that she herself should have been the first to broach the subject.
"Father says John is wild about Chum," went on the girl unconcernedly; adding, "By the way, John asked father to tell you he'd be glad to pay you $100 for the dog. It's a splendid offer, isn't it! Think of all the things we can get for the house with $100, Link! Why, it seems almost providential, doesn't it? Father says John is in earnest about it too. He—"
"In earnest, hey!" snapped Ferris, finding his voice after an instant of utter amazement. "In EARNEST! Well, that's real grand of him, ain't it! I'd be in earnest, too, if I was to bid ten cents for the best farm in Passaic County. But the feller who owned the farm wouldn't be in earnest. He'd be taking it as a fine joke. Like I do, when Johnny Iglehart has the nerve to offer $100 for a dog that wouldn't be worth a cent less'n $600—even if he was for sale. Why, that collie of mine—"
"If he is worth $600," suggested Dorcas icily, "you'd better not lose any time before you find someone who will pay that for him. He's no use to us. And $600 is too much money to carry on four legs. He—"
"No use to us?" echoed Link. "Why, Chum's worth the pay of a hired man to me, besides all the fondness I've got for him! He handles the sheep, and he—"
"So you've told me," interposed Dorcas with no show of interest. "I remember the first few times you came to see me you didn't talk of anything else, hardly, except that dog. Everybody says the same thing. It's a joke all through Hampton, the silly way you're forever singing his praises."
"Why shouldn't I?" demanded Link sturdily. "There's not a dandier, better pal anywhere, than what Chum's been to me. He—"
"Yes, yes," assented Dorcas, "I know. I don't doubt it. But, after all, he's only a dog, you know. And if you can get a good price for him, as you say, then the only thing to do is to sell him. In hard times like these—"
"Times ain't hard," denied Link tersely. "And Chum ain't for sale. That's all there is to it."
If one of her father's sleek cart horses had suddenly walked out of its stall with a shouted demand that it be allowed to do the driving, henceforth, and that its owners do the hauling, Dorcas Chatham could not have been much more surprised than at this unlooked-for speech from her humble suitor.
Up to now, Link Ferris had treated the girl as though he were unworthy to breathe the same air as herself. He had been pathetically eager to concede any and every mooted point to her, with a servile abasement which had roused her contempt, even while it had gratified her sense of power.
She had approached with tact the subject of Chum's disposal. But she had done so with a view to the saving of Link's feelings, not with the faintest idea that her love-bemused slave could venture to oppose her. She knew his fondness for the dog and she had not wished to bring matters to an issue, if tact would serve as well.
To punish her serf and to crush rebellion once and for all, as well as to be avenged for her wasted diplomacy, Dorcas cast aside her kindlier intent and drove straight to the point. Her calm temper was ruffled, and she spoke with a new heat:
"There is something you and I may as well settle, here and now, Link," she said. "It will save bickerings and misunderstandings, later on. I've told you how I hate dogs. They are savage and treacherous and—"
"Chum ain't!" declared Link stoutly.
"Why, that dog—"
"I hate dogs," she went on, "and I'm horribly afraid of them. I won't live in the same house with one. I don't want to hurt your feelings, Link, but you'll have to get rid of that great brown brute before you marry me. That is positive. So please let's say no more about it."
The man was staring at her with under jaw ajar. Her sharp air of finality grated on his every nerve. Her ultimatum concerning Chum left him dumfounded. But he forced himself to rally to the defense.
This glorious sweetheart of his did not understand dogs. He had hoped to teach her later to like and appreciate them. But apparently she must be taught at once that Chum could not be sold and that the collie must remain an honored member of the Ferris household. Marshaling his facts and his words, he said:
"I never told you about the time I was coming back home one night from the tavern here at Hampton, after I'd just cashed my pay check from the Pat'son market. I've never blabbed much about it, because I was drunk. Yes, it was back in them days. Just after I'd got Chum. A couple of fellers had got me drunk. And they set on me in a lonesome patch of the road by the lake; and they had me down and was taking the money away from me, when Chum sailed into them and druv them off. He had follered me, without me knowing. In the scrimmage I got tumbled headfirst into the lake. I was too drunk to get out, and my head was stuck in the mud, 'way under water. I'd 'a' drowned if Chum hadn't of pulled me out with his teeth in the shoulder of my coat. And that's the dog you're wanting me to sell?"
"You aren't likely to need such help again, I hope," countered the girl loftily, "now that you have stopped drinking and made a man of yourself. So Chum won't be needed for—"
"I stopped drinking," answered Link, "because I got to seeing how much more of a beast I was than the fine clean dog that was living with me. He made me feel 'shamed of myself. And he was such good comp'ny round the house that I didn't get lonesome enough to sneak down to the tavern all the time. It wasn't me that 'made a man of myself.' It was Chum made a man of me. Maybe that sounds foolish to you. But—"
"It does," said Dorcas serenely. "Very foolish indeed. You don't seem to realize that a dog is only an animal. If you can get a nice home for the collie—such as John Iglehart will give him—"
"Iglehart!" raged Link, momentarily losing hold over himself. "If that mangy, wall-eyed slob comes slinking round my farm again, making friends with Chum, I'll sick the dog onto him; and have him run Iglehart all the way to his own shack! He's—! There! I didn't mean to cut loose like that!" he broke off at Dorcas's shudder of dismay. "Only it riles me something terrible to have him trying to get Chum away from me."
"There is no occasion to go losing your temper and shouting," reproved the girl. "Nothing is to be gained that way. Besides, that isn't the point. The point is this, since you force me to say it: You must get rid of that dog. And you must do it before you marry me. I won't set foot in your house until your dog is gone—and gone for good. I am sorry to speak so, but it had to be said."
She paused to give her slave a chance to wilt. But Link only sat, blank-faced, staring at her. His mind was in a muddle. All his narrow world was upside down. He couldn't make his brain grasp in full the situation.
All he could visualize for the instant was a shadowy mental image of Chum's expectant face; the tulip ears pricked forward, expectant; the jaws "laughing"; the deepset brown eyes abrim with gay affection and deathless loyalty for the man who was now asked to get rid of him. It didn't make sense. Half under his breath Link Ferris began to talk—or rather to ramble.
"There was one of the books over to the lib'ry," he heard himself meandering on, "with a queer story in it. I got to reading it through, one night last winter. It was about a feller named 'Fed'rigo.' A wop of some kind, I guess. He got so hard up he didn't have anything left but a pet falcon. Whatever a falcon may be. Whatever it was, it must'a been good to eat. But he set a heap of store by it. Him and it was chums. Same as me and Chum are. Then along come a lady he was in love with. And she stopped to his house for dinner. There wasn't anything in the house fit for her to eat. So he fed her the falcon. Killed the pet that was his chum, so's he could feed the dame he was stuck on. I thought, when I read it, that that feller was more kinds of a swine than I'd have time to tell you. But he wasn't any worse'n I'd be if I was to—"
"I'm sorry you care so little for me," intervened Dorcas, her voice very sweet and very cold, and her slender nose whitening a little at the corners of the nostrils. "Of course if you prefer a miserable dog to me, there's nothing more to be said. I—"
"No!" almost yelled the miserable man. "You've got me all wrong, dearie. Honest, you have. Can't you understand? Your little finger means a heap more to me than ev'rything else there is—except the rest of you—"
"And your dog," she supplemented.
"No!" he denied fiercely. "You got no right to say that! But Chum's served me faithful. And I can't kick him out like he was a—"
"Now you are getting angry again!" she accused, pale and furious. "I don't care to be howled at. The case stands like this: You must choose whether to get rid of that dog or to lose me. Take your choice. If—"
"I read in a story book about a feller that had a thing like that put up to him," said poor Link, unable to believe she was in earnest. "His girl said: 'You gotta choose between me and tobacco.' And he said: 'I'll choose tobacco. Not that I value tobacco so all-fired much,' he says, 'but because a girl, who'd make a man take such a choice, ain't worth giving up tobacco for.' You see, dearie, it's this way—"
"You'll have that dog out of your house and out of your possession, inside of twenty-four hours," she decreed, the white anger of a grave-eyed woman making her cold voice vibrate, "or you will drop my acquaintance. That is final. And it's definite. The engagement is over—until I hear that your dog is killed or given away or sold. Good night!"
She left the room in vindictive haste. So overwhelmingly angry was she that she closed the door softly behind her, instead of slamming it. Through all his swirl of misery Link had sense enough to note this final symptom and wonder bitterly at it.
On his way out of the house he was hailed by a highpitched baby voice from somewhere above him. Olive had crawled out of bed, and in her white flannel pajamas she was leaning over the upper balustrade.
"Link!" she called down to the wretched man at the front door. "When you and Dorcas gets married together, I'm comin' to live wiv you! Then I can play wiv Chummie all I want to!"
Link bolted out to the street in the midst of her announcement. And, so occupied was he in trying to swallow a lump in his own throat, he failed to hear the sound of stifled sobbing from behind a locked door somewhere in the upper reaches of the house.
As the night wore on, the sleepless girl sought to comfort herself in the thought that Link had not definitely refused her terms. A night's reflection and an attitude of unbending aloofness on her own part might well bring him to a surrender.
Perhaps it was something in Link Ferris's dejected gait, as he turned into his own lane that night, perhaps it was the instinct which tells a collie when a loved human is unhappy—but Chum was at once aware of his master's woe. The dog, at first sound of Link's approaching steps, bounded from his vigil place on the porch and frisked joyously through the darkness to meet him. He sent forth a trumpeting bark of welcome as he ran.
Then—fifty feet from the oncoming man—the big collie halted and stood for an instant with ears cocked and eyes troubled. After which he resumed his advance; but at a solemn trot and with downcast mien. As he reached Link, the collie whined softly under his breath, gazing wistfully up into Ferris's face and then thrusting his cold nose lovingly into one of the man's loose-hanging hands.
Link had winced visibly at sound of the jubilantly welcoming bark. Now, noting the sudden change in the collie's demeanor, he stooped and caught the silken head between his hands. The gesture was rough, almost painful. Yet Chum knew it was a caress. And his drooping plume of a tail began to wag in response.
"Oh, CHUM!" exclaimed the man with something akin to a groan. "You know all about it, don't you, old friend? You know I'm the miser'blest man in North Jersey. You know it without me having to say a word. And you're doing your level best to comfort me. Just like you always do. You never get cranky; and you never say I gotta choose betwixt this and that; and you never get sore at me. You're just my chum. And you're fool enough to think I'm all right. Yet she says I gotta get rid of you!"
The dog pressed closer to him, still whining softly and licking the roughly caressing hands.
"What'm I going to do, Chummie?" demanded Link brokenly. "What'm I going to do about it? I s'pose any other feller'd call me a fool—like she thinks I am and tell me to sell you. If you was some dogs, that'd be all right. But not with YOU, Chum. Not with you. You'd mope and grieve for me, and you'd be wond'ring why I'd deserted you after all these years. And you'd get to pining and maybe go sick. And the feller that bought you wouldn't understand. And most likely he'd whale you for not being more chipper-like. And you haven't ever been hit. I'd—I'd a blame' sight sooner shoot you, than to let anyone else have you, to abuse you and let you be unhappy for me, Chum. A blame' sight rather."
Side by side they moved on into the darkened house. There, with the dog curled at his feet, Link Ferris lay broad awake until sunrise.
Early the next afternoon Dorcas decided she stood in need of brisk, outdoor exercise. Olive came running down the path after her, eagerly demanding to be taken along. Dorcas with much sternness bade her go back. She wanted to be alone, unless—But she refused to admit to herself that there was any "unless."
Olive, grievously disappointed, stood on the steps, watching her big sister set off up the road. She saw Dorcas take the righthand turn at the fork. The baby's face cleared. Now she knew in which direction Dorcas was going. That fork led to the Glen. And the Glen was a favorite Sunday afternoon ramble for Link and Chum. Olive knew that, because she and Dorcas more than once had walked thither to meet them.
Olive was pleasantly forgetful of her parents' positive command that she refrain from walking alone on the motor-infested Sunday roads. She set off at a fast jog trot over the nearby hill, on whose other side ran the Glen road.
Link Ferris, with Chum at his heels, was tramping moodily toward the Glen. As he turned into the road he paused in his sullen walk. There, strolling unconcernedly, some yards in front of him, was a tall girl in white. Her back was toward him. Yet he would have recognized her at a hundred times the distance. Chum knew her, too, for he wagged his tail and started at a faster trot to overtake her.
"Back!" called Link.
Purposely he spoke as low as possible. But the dog heard and obeyed. The girl, too, started a little, and made as if to turn. Just then ensued a wild crackling in the thick roadside bushes which lined the hillside from highway to crest. And a white-clad little bunch of humanity came galloping jubilantly out into the road, midway between Dorcas and Link.
At the road edge Olive's stubby toe caught in a noose of blackberry vine. As the youngster was running full tilt, her own impetus sent her rolling over and over into the center of the dusty turnpike.
Before she could get to her feet or even stop rolling, a touring car came round the bend, ten yards away—a car that was traveling at a speed of something like forty-five miles an hour, and whose four occupants were singing at the top of their lungs.
Link Ferris had scarce time to tense his muscles for a futile spring—Dorcas's scream of helpless terror was still unborn—when the car was upon the prostrate child.
And in the same fraction of a second a furry catapult launched itself across the wide road at a speed that made it look like tawny blur.
Chum's mad leap carried him to the baby just as the car's fender hung above her. A slashing grip of his teeth in the shoulder of her white dress and a lightning heave of his mighty neck and shoulders—and the little form was hurtling through the air and into the weed-filled wayside ditch.
In practically the same instant Chum's body whizzed into the air again. But this time by no impetus of its own. The high-powered car's fender had struck it fair, and had tossed it into the ditch as though the dog had been a heap of rags.
There—huddled and lifeless—sprawled the beautiful collie. The car put on an extra spurt of speed and disappeared round the next turn.
Olive was on her feet before Dorcas's flying steps could reach her. Unhurt but vastly indignant, the baby opened her mouth to make way for a series of howls. Then, her eye falling on the inert dog, she ran over to Chum and began to cry out to him to come to life again.
"No use of that, kid!" interposed Link, kneeling beside the collie he loved and smoothing the soiled and rumpled fur. "It's easier to drop out of life than what it is to come back to it again. Well," he went on harshly, turning to the weeping Dorcas, "the question has answered itself, you see. No need now to tell me to get rid of him. He's saved me the bother. Like he was always saving me bother. That being Chum's way."
Something in his throat impeded his fierce speech. And he bent over the dog again, his rough hands smoothing the pitifully still body with loving tenderness. Dorcas, weeping hysterically, fell on her knees beside Chum and put her arms about the huddled shape. She seemed to be trying to say something, her lips close to one of the furry little ears.
"No use!" broke in Ferris, his voice as grating as a file's. "He can't hear you now. No good to tell him you hate dogs; or that you're glad you've saw the last of him. Even if he was alive, he wouldn't understand that. He'd never been spoke to that way."
"Don't! Oh, don't!" sobbed the girl. "Oh, I'm so—"
"If you're crying for Chum," went on the grating voice, "there's no need to. He was only just a dog. He didn't know any better but to get his life smashed out'n him, so somebody else could go on living. All he asked was to be with me and work for me and love me. After you said he couldn't keep on doing that, there ain't any good in your crying for him. It must be nice—if you'll only stop crying long enough to think of it—to know he's out of your way. And I'M out of it too!" he went on in a gust of fury. "S'pose you two just toddle on, now, and leave me to take him home. I got the right to that, anyhow."
He stooped to pick up the dog; and he winked with much rapidity to hold back an annoying mist which came between him and Chum. His mouth corners, too, were twitching in a way that shamed him. He had a babyish yearning to bury his face in his dead friend's fur, and cry.
"DON'T!" Dorcas was wailing. "Oh, you can't punish me any worse than I'm—"
Her sob-broken voice scaled high and swelled out into a cry of stark astonishment. Slowly Chum was lifting his splendid head and blinking stupidly about him!
The fender had smitten the collie just below the shoulder, in a mass of fur-armored muscles. In falling into the wayside ditch his skull had come into sharp contact with a rock. Knocked senseless by the concussion, he had lain as dead, for the best part of five minutes. After which he had come slowly to his senses—bewildered, bruised and sore, but otherwise no worse for the accident.
He came to himself to find a weeping woman clutching him stranglingly round the neck, while she tried to kiss his dust-smeared head.
Chum did not care at all for this treatment, especially from a comparative stranger. But he saw his adored master looking so idiotically happy—over that or something else—that the dog forbore to protest.
"If you really wanted him put out of the way so bad—" began Link, when he could trust himself to speak.
He got no further. Dorcas Chatham turned on him in genuine savageness. The big eyes were no longer grave and patronizing. The air of aloofness had fallen from the girl like a discarded garment.
"Link!" she blazed. "Link Ferris! If you ever dare speak about getting rid of—of MY dog,—I'll—I'll never speak to you again, as long as—as long as we're married!"