"They will be just what Miss Seymour wants them to be, Willits." The words came in hard, gritting tones through half-closed lips, and the tightening of his throat muscles. This phase of the Rutter blood was dangerous.
Kate was startled. Harry must not lose his self-control. There must be no misunderstandings on this the happiest night of her life.
"Yes," she said sweetly, with a gracious bend of her head—"but I do want to dance with Mr. Willits, only I don't know which one to give him."
"Then give me the Virginia reel, Miss Kate, the one that comes just before supper, and we can go all in together—you too, Harry," Willits insisted eagerly. "See, Miss Kate—your card is still empty," and he turned toward her the face of the one hanging to her wrist.
"No, never the reel, Kate, that is mine!" burst out Harry determinedly, as a final dismissal to Willits. He lowered his voice, and in a beseeching tone said—"Father's set his heart on our dancing the reel together—please don't give him the reel!"
Kate, intent on restoring harmony, arched her neck coyly, and said in her most bewitching tones—the notes of a robin after a shower: "Well, I can't tell yet, Mr. Willits, but you shall have one or the other; just leave it to me—either the reel or the schottische. We will talk it over when I come down."
"Then it's the reel, Miss Kate, is it not?" he cried, ignoring Harry completely, backing away as he retraced his steps, a look of triumph on his face.
She shook her head at him, but she did not answer. She wanted to get rid of him as quickly as possible. Willits had spoiled everything. She was so happy before he came, and Harry was so adorable. She wished now she had not drawn away her cheek when he tried to kiss her.
"Don't be angry, Harry, dear," she pleaded coaxingly, determined to get her lover back once more. "He didn't mean anything—he only wanted to be polite."
"He didn't want to be polite," the angry lover retorted. "He meant to force himself in between us; that is what he meant, and he's always at it, every chance he gets. He tried it at Mrs. Cheston's the other night until I put a stop to it, but there's one thing certain—he'll stop it when our engagement is announced after supper or I'll know the reason why."
Kate caught her breath. A new disturbing thought entered her mind. It was at Mrs. Cheston's that both Willits and Harry had misbehaved themselves, and it was Harry's part in the sequel which she had forgiven. The least said about that night the better.
"But he is your guest, Harry," she urged at last, still determined to divert his thoughts from Willits and the loss of the dance—"OUR guest," she went on—"so is everybody else here to-night, and we must do what everybody wants us to, not be selfish about it. Now, my darling—you couldn't be impolite to anybody—don't you know you couldn't? Mrs. Cheston calls you 'My Lord Chesterfield'—I heard her say so to-night."
"Yes, I know, Kate"—he softened—"that's what father said about my being polite to him—but all the same I didn't want Willits invited, and it's only because father insisted that he's here. Of course, I'm going to be just as polite to him as I can, but even father would feel differently about him if he had heard what he said to you a minute ago."
"What did he say?" She knew, but she loved to hear him defend her. This, too, was a way out—in a minute he would be her old Harry again.
"I won't even repeat it," he answered doggedly.
"You mean about my being twenty-one? That was rather ungallant, wasn't it?"
Again that long look from under her eyelids—he would have succumbed at once could he have seen it.
"No, the other part of it. That's not the way to speak to a lady. That's what I dislike him for. He never was born a gentleman. He isn't a gentleman and never can be a gentleman."
Kate drew herself up—the unreasonableness of the objection jarred upon her. He had touched one of her tender spots—pride of birth was something she detested.
"Don't talk nonsense, Harry," she replied in a slightly impatient voice. Moods changed with our Kate as unexpectedly as April showers. "What difference should it make to you or anybody else whether Langdon Willits's grandmother was a countess or a country girl, so she was honest and a lady?" Her head went up with a toss as she spoke, for this was one of Kate's pet theories.
"But he's not of my class, Kate, and he shouldn't be here. I told father so."
"Then make him one," she answered stoutly, "if only for to-night, by being extra polite and courteous to him and never letting him feel that he is outside of what you call 'your class.' I like Mr. Willits, and have always liked him. He is invariably polite to me, and he can be very kind and sympathetic at times. Listen! they are calling us, and there goes the music—come along, darling—it's a schottische and we'll dance it together."
Harry sprang up, slipped his arm around Kate's waist, lifted her to her feet, held her close, and kissed her squarely on the mouth.
"There, you darling! and another one—two—three! Oh, you precious! What do I care about Willits or any other red-headed lower county man that ever lived? He can have fifty grandmothers if he pleases and I won't say a word—kiss me—kiss me again. Quick now or we'll lose the dance," and, utterly oblivious as to whether any one had seen them or not, the two raced down the wide stairs.
While all this gayety was going on in the ballroom another and equally joyous gathering was besieging the serving tables in the colonel's private den—a room leading out of the larger supper room, where he kept his guns and shooting togs, and which had been pressed into service for this one night.
These thirsty gentlemen were of all ages and tastes, from the young men just entering society to the few wrinkled bald-pates whose legs had given out and who, therefore, preferred the colonel's Madeira and terrapin to the lighter pleasures of the dance.
In and out of the groups, his ruddy, handsome face radiant with the joy that welled up in his heart, moved St. George Temple. Never had he been in finer form or feather—never had he looked so well—(not all the clothes that Poole of London cut came to Moorlands). Something of the same glow filtered through him that he had felt on the night when the two lovers had settled their difficulties, and he had swung back through the park at peace with all the world.
All this could be seen in the way he threw back his head, smiling right and left; the way he moved his hands—using them as some men do words or their eyebrows—now uplifting them in surprise at the first glimpse of some unexpected face, his long delicate fingers outspread in exclamations of delight; now closing them tight when he had those of the new arrival in his grasp—now curving them, palms up, as he lifted to his lips the fingers of a grande dame. "Keep your eyes on St. George," whispered Mrs. Cheston, who never missed a point in friend or foe and whose fun at a festivity often lay in commenting on her neighbors, praise or blame being impartially mixed as her fancy was touched. "And by all means watch his hands, my dear. They are like the baton of an orchestra leader and tell the whole story. Only men whose blood and lineage have earned them freedom from toil, or men whose brains throb clear to their finger-tips, have such hands. Yes! St. George is very happy to-night, and I know why. He has something on his mind that he means to tell us later on."
Mrs. Cheston was right: she generally was—St. George did have something on his mind—something very particular on his mind—a little speech really which was a dead secret to everybody except prying Mrs. Cheston—one which was to precede the uncorking of that wonderful old Madeira, and the final announcement of the engagement—a little speech in which he meant to refer to their two dear mothers when they were girls, recalling traits and episodes forgotten by most, but which from their very loveliness had always lingered in his heart and memory.
Before this important event took place, however, there were some matters which he intended to look after himself, one of them being the bowl of punch and its contiguous beverages in the colonel's den. This seemed to be the storm centre to-night, and here he determined, even at the risk of offending his host, to set up danger-signals at the first puff of wind. The old fellows, if they chose, might empty innumerable ladles full of apple toddy or compounds of Santa Cruz rum and pineapples into their own persons, but not the younger bloods! His beloved Kate had suffered enough because of these roysterers. There should be one ball around Kennedy Square in which everybody would behave themselves, and he did not intend to mince his words when the time came. He had discussed the matter with the colonel when the ball opened, but little encouragement came from that quarter.
"So far as these young sprigs are concerned, St. George," Rutter had flashed back, "they must look out for themselves. I can't curtail my hospitality to suit their babyships. As for Harry, you're only wasting your time. He is made of different stuff—it's not in his blood and couldn't be. Whatever else he may become he will never be a sot. Let him have his fling: once a Rutter, always a Rutter," and then, with a ring in his voice, "when my son ceases to be a gentleman, St. George, I will show him the door, but drink will never do it."
Dr. Teackle had also been on the alert. He was a young physician just coming into practice, many of the younger set being his patients, and he often acted as a curb when they broke loose. He, with St. George's whispered caution in his ears, had also tried to frame a word of protest to the colonel, suggesting in the mildest way that that particular bowl of apple toddy be not replenished—but the Lord of the Manor had silenced him with a withering glance before he had completed his sentence. In this dilemma he had again sought out St. George.
"Look out for Willits, Uncle George. He'll be staggering in among the ladies if he gets another crack at that toddy. It's an infernal shame to bring these relays of punch in here. I tried to warn the colonel, but he came near eating me up. Willits has had very little experience in this sort of thing and is mixing his eggnog with everything within his reach. That will split his head wide open in the morning."
"Go and find him, Teackle, and bring him to me," cried St. George; "I'll stay here until you get him. Tell him I want to see him—and Alec"—this to the old butler who was skimming past, his hands laden with dishes—"don't you bring another drop of punch into this room until you see me."
"But de colonel say dat—"
"—I don't care what the colonel says; if he wants to know why, tell him I ordered it. I'm not going to have this night spoiled by any tomfoolery of Talbot's, I don't care what he says. You hear me, Alec? Not a drop. Take out those half-empty bowls and don't you serve another thimbleful of anything until I say so." Here he turned to the young doctor, who seemed rather surprised at St. George's dictatorial air—one rarely seen in him. "Yes—brutal, I know, Teackle, and perhaps a little ill-mannered, this interfering with another man's hospitality, but if you knew how Kate has suffered over this same stupidity you would say I was right. Talbot never thinks—never cares. Because he's got a head as steady as a town clock and can put away a bottle of port without winking an eyelid, he believes anybody else can do the same. I tell you this sort of thing has got to stop or sooner or later these young bloods will break the hearts of half the girls in town.... Careful! here comes Willits—not another word.... Oh, Mr. Willits, here you are! I was just going to send for you. I want to talk to you about that mare of yours—is she still for sale?" His nonchalance was delightful.
"No, Mr. Temple; I had thought of keeping her, sir," the young man rejoined blandly, greatly flattered at having been specially singled out by the distinguished Mr. Temple. "But if you are thinking of buying my mare, I should be most delighted to consider it. If you will permit me—I will call upon you in the morning." This last came with elaborate effusiveness. "But you haven't a drop of anything to drink, Mr. Temple, nor you either, doctor! Egad! What am I thinking of! Come, won't you join me? The colonel's mixtures are—"
"Better wait, Mr. Willits," interrupted St. George calmly and with the air of one conversant with the resources of the house. "Alec has just taken out a half-emptied bowl of toddy." He had seen at a glance that Teackle's diagnosis of the young man's condition was correct.
"Then let us have a swig at the colonel's port—it's the best in the county."
"No, hold on till the punch comes. You young fellows don't know how to take care of your stomachs. You ought to stick to your tipple as you do to your sweetheart—you should only have one."
"—At a time," laughed Teackle.
"No, one ALL the time, you dog! When I was your age, Mr. Willits, if I drank Madeira I continued to drink Madeira, not to mix it up with everything on the table."
"By Jove, you're right, Mr. Temple! I'm sticking to one girl—Miss Kate's my girl to-night. I'm going to dance the Virginia reel with her."
St. George eyed him steadily. He saw that the liquor had already reached his head or he would not have spoken of Kate as he did. "Your choice is most admirable, Mr. Willits," he said suavely, "but let Harry have Miss Kate to-night," adding, as he laid his hand confidingly on the young man's shoulder—"they were made to step that dance together."
"But she said she would dance it with me!" he flung back—he did not mean to be defrauded.
"Really?" It was wonderful how soft St. George's voice could be. Teackle could not have handled a refractory patient the better.
"Well, that is," rejoined Willits, modified by Temple's tone—"she is to let me know—that was the bargain."
Still another soft cadence crept into St. George's voice: "Well, even if she did say she would let you know, do be a little generous. Miss Seymour is always so obliging; but she ought really to dance the reel with Harry to-night." He used Kate's full name, but Willits's head was buzzing too loudly for him to notice the delicately suggested rebuke.
"Well, I don't see that, and I'm not going to see it, either. Harry's always coming in between us; he tried to get Miss Kate away from me a little while ago, but he didn't succeed."
"Noblesse oblige, my dear Mr. Willits," rejoined St. George in a more positive tone. "He is host, you know, and the ball is given to Miss Seymour, and Harry can do nothing else but be attentive." He felt like strangling the cub, but it was neither the time nor place—nothing should disturb Kate's triumph if he could help it. One way was to keep Willits sober, and this he intended to do whether the young man liked it or not—if he talked to him all night.
"But it is my dance," Willits broke out. "You ask him if it isn't my dance—he heard what Miss Kate said. Here comes Harry now."
Like a breath of west wind our young prince blew in, his face radiant, his eyes sparkling. He had entirely forgotten the incident on the stairs in the rapture of Kate's kisses, and Willits was once more one of the many guests he was ready to serve and be courteous to.
"Ah, gentlemen—I hope you have everything you want!" he cried with a joyous wave of his hand. "Where will I get an ice for Kate, Uncle George? We are just about beginning the Virginia reel and she is so warm. Oh, we have had such a lovely waltz! Why are you fellows not dancing? Send them in, Uncle George." He was brimming over with happiness.
Willits moved closer: "What did you say? The Virginia reel? Has it begun?" His head was too muddled for quick thinking.
"Not yet, Willits, but it will right away—everybody is on the floor now," returned Harry, his eyes in search of something to hold Kate's refreshment.
"Then it is my dance, Harry. I thought the reel was to be just before supper or I would have hunted Miss Kate up."
"So it is," laughed Harry, catching up an empty plate from the serving table and moving to where the ices were spread. "You ought to know, for you told her yourself. It is about to begin. They were taking their partners when I left."
"Then that's MY reel," Willits insisted. "You heard what Miss Kate said, Harry—that's what I told you too, Mr. Temple," and he turned to St. George for confirmation.
"Oh, but you are mistaken, Langdon," continued Harry, bending over the dish. "She said she would decide later on whether to give you the reel or a schottische—and she has. Miss Kate dances this reel with me." There was a flash in his eye as he spoke, but he was still the host.
"And I suppose you will want the one after supper too," snapped Willits. He had edged closer and was now speaking to Harry's bent back.
"Why, certainly, if Miss Kate is willing and wishes it," rejoined Harry simply, still too intent on having the ice reach his sweetheart at the earliest possible moment to notice either Willits's condition or his tone of voice.
Willits sprang forward just as Harry regained his erect position. "No you won't, sir!" he cried angrily. "I've got some rights here and I'm going to protect them. I'll ask Miss Kate myself and find out whether I am to be made a fool of like this," and before St. George could prevent started for the door.
Harry dropped the plate on the table and blocked the enraged man's exit with his outstretched arm. He was awake now—wide awake—and to the cause.
"You'll do nothing of the kind, Langdon—not in your present state. Pull yourself together, man! Miss Seymour is not accustomed to be spoken of in that way and you know it. Now don't be foolish—stay here with Uncle George and the doctor until you cool down. There are the best of reasons why I should dance the reel with Miss Kate, but I can't explain them now."
"Neither am I, Mr. Harry Rutter, accustomed to be spoken to in that way by you or anybody else. I don't care a rap for your explanations. Get out of my way, or you'll be sorry," and he sprang one side and flung himself out of the room before Harry could realize the full meaning of his words.
St. George saw the flash in the boy's eyes, and stretching out his hand laid it on Harry's arm.
"Steady, my boy! Let him go—Kate will take care of him."
"No! I'll take care of him!—and now!" He was out of the room and the door shut behind him before Temple could frame a reply.
St. George shot an anxious, inquiring look at Teackle, who nodded his head in assent, and the two hurried from the room and across the expanse of white crash, Willits striding ahead, Harry at his heels, St. George and the doctor following close behind.
Kate stood near the far door, her radiant eyes fixed on Harry's approaching figure—the others she did not see. Willits reached her first:
"Miss Kate, isn't this my dance?" he burst out—"didn't you promise me?"
Kate started and for a moment her face flushed. If she had forgotten any promise she had made it certainly was not intentional. Then her mind acted. There must be no bad blood here—certainly not between Harry and Willits.
"No, not quite that, Mr. Willits," she answered in her sweetest voice, a certain roguish coquetry in its tones. "I said I'd think it over, and you never came near me, and so Harry and I are—"
"But you DID promise me." His voice could be heard all over the room—even the colonel, who was talking to a group of ladies, raised his head to listen, his companions thinking the commotion was due to the proper arranging of the dance.
Harry's eyes flashed; angry blood was mounting to his cheeks. He was amazed at Willits's outburst.
"You mean to contradict Miss Kate! Are you crazy, Willits?"
"No, I am entirely sane," he retorted, an ugly ring in his voice.
Everybody had ceased talking now. Good-natured disputes over the young girls were not uncommon among the young men, but this one seemed to have an ominous sound. Colonel Rutter evidently thought so, for he had now risen from his seat and was crossing the room to where Harry and the group stood.
"Well, you neither act nor talk as if you were sane," rejoined Harry in cold, incisive tones, inching his way nearer Kate, as if to be the better prepared to defend her.
Willits's lip curled. "I am not beholden to you, sir, for my conduct, although I can be later on for my words. Let me see your dancing-card, Miss Kate," and he caught it from her unresisting hand. "There—what did I tell you!" This came with a flare of indignation. "It was a blank when I saw it last and you've filled it in, sir, of your own accord!" Here he faced Harry. "That's your handwriting—I'll leave it to you, Mr. Temple, if it isn't his handwriting."
Harry flushed scarlet and his eyes blazed as he stepped toward the speaker. Kate shrank back in alarm—she had read Harry's face and knew what was behind it.
"Take that back, Langdon—quick! You are my guest, but you mustn't say things like that here. I put my name on the card because Miss Kate asked me to. Take it back, sir—NOW!—and then make an humble apology to Miss Seymour.
"I'll take back nothing! I've been cheated out of a dance. Here—take her—and take this with her!" and he tore Kate's card in half and threw the pieces in his host's face.
With the spring of a cat, Harry lunged forward and raised his arm as if to strike Willits in the face: Willits drew himself up to his full height and confronted him: Kate shrivelled within herself, all the color gone from her cheeks. Whether to call out for help or withdraw quietly, was what puzzled her. Both would concentrate the attention of the whole room on the dispute.
St. George, who was boiling with indignation and disgust, but still cool and himself, pushed his way into the middle of the group.
"Not a word, Harry," he whispered in low, frigid tones. "This can be settled in another way." Then in his kindest voice, so loud that all could hear—"Teackle, will you and Mr. Willits please meet me in the colonel's den—that, perhaps, is the best place after all to straighten out these tangles. I'll join you there as soon as I have Miss Kate safely settled." He bent over her: "Kate, dear, perhaps you had better sit alongside of Mrs. Rutter until I can get these young fellows cooled off"—and in a still lower key—"you behaved admirably, my girl—admirably. I'm proud of you. Mr. Willits has had too much to drink—that is what is the matter with him, but it will be all over in a minute—and, Harry, my boy, suppose you help me look up Teackle," and he laid his hand with an authoritative pressure on the boy's arm.
The colonel had by this time reached the group and stood trying to catch the cue. He had heard the closing sentence of St. George's instructions, but he had missed the provocation, although he had seen Harry's uplifted fist.
"What's the matter, St. George?" he inquired nervously.
"Just a little misunderstanding, Talbot, as to who was to dance with our precious Kate," St. George answered with a laugh, as he gripped Harry's arm the tighter. "She is such a darling that it is as much as I can do to keep these young Romeos from running each other through the body, they are so madly in love with her. I am thinking of making off with her myself as the only way to keep the peace. Yes, you dear girl, I'll come back. Hold the music up for a little while, Talbot, until I can straighten them all out," and with his arm still tight through Harry's, the two walked the length of the room and closed the far door behind them.
Kate looked after them and her heart sank all the lower. She knew the feeling between the two men, and she knew Harry's hot, ungovernable temper—the temper of the Rutters. Patient as he often was, and tender-hearted as he could be, there flashed into his eyes now and then something that frightened her—something that recalled an incident in the history of his house. He had learned from his gentle mother to forgive affronts to himself; she had seen him do it many times, overlooking what another man would have resented, but an affront to herself or any other woman was a different matter: that he would never forgive. She knew, too, that he had just cause to be offended, for in all her life no one had ever been so rude to her. That she herself was partly to blame only intensified her anxiety. Willits loved her, for he had told her so, not once, but several times, although she had answered him only with laughter. She should have been honest and not played the coquette: and yet, although the fault was partly her own, never had she been more astonished than at his outburst. In all her acquaintance with him he had never lost his temper. Harry, of course, would lay it to Willits's lack of breeding—to the taint in his blood. But she knew better—it was the insanity produced by drink, combined with his jealousy of Harry, which had caused the gross outrage. If she had only told Willits herself of her betrothal and not waited to surprise him before the assembled guests, it would have been fairer and spared every one this scene.
All these thoughts coursed through her mind as with head still proudly erect she crossed the room on the colonel's arm, to a seat beside her future mother-in-law, who had noticed nothing, and to whom not a syllable of the affair would have been mentioned, all such matters being invariably concealed from the dear lady.
Old Mrs. Cheston, however, was more alert; not only had she caught the anger in Harry's eyes, but she had followed the flight of the torn card as its pieces fell to the floor. She had once been present at a reception given by a prime minister when a similar fracas had occurred. Then it was a lady's glove and not a dancing-card which was thrown in a rival's face, and it was a rapier that flashed and not a clenched fist.
"What was the matter over there, Talbot?" she demanded, speaking from behind her fan when the colonel came within hearing.
"Nothing! Some little disagreement about who should lead the Virginia reel with Kate. I have stopped the music until they fix it up."
"Don't talk nonsense, Talbot Rutter, not to me. There was bad blood over there—you better look after them. There'll be trouble if you don't."
The colonel tucked the edge of a rebellious ruffle inside his embroidered waistcoat and with a quiet laugh said: "St. George is attending to them."
"St. George is as big a fool as you are about such things. Go, I tell you, and see what they are doing in there with the door shut."
"But, my dear Mrs. Cheston," echoed her host with a deprecating wave of his hand—"my Harry would no more attack a man under his own roof than you would cut off your right hand. He's not born that way—none of us are."
"You talk like a perfect idiot, Talbot!" she retorted angrily. "You seem to have forgotten everything you knew. These young fellows here are so many tinder boxes. There will be trouble I tell you—go out there and find out what is going on," she reiterated, her voice increasing in intensity. "They've had time enough to fix up a dozen Virginia reels—and besides, Kate is waiting, and they know it. Look! there's some one coming out—it's that young Teackle. Call him over here and find out!"
The doctor, who had halted at the door, was now scrutinizing the faces of the guests as if in search of some one. Then he moved swiftly to the far side of the room, touched Mark Gilbert, Harry's most intimate friend, on the shoulder, and the two left the floor.
Kate sat silent, a fixed smile on her face that ill concealed her anxiety. She had heard every word of the talk between Mrs. Cheston and the colonel, but she did not share the old lady's alarm as to any actual conflict. She would trust Uncle George to avoid that. But what kept Harry? Why leave her thus abruptly and send no word back? In her dilemma she leaned forward and touched the colonel's arm.
"You don't think anything is the matter, dear colonel, do you?"
"With whom, Kate?"
"Between Harry and Mr. Willits. Harry might resent it—he was very angry." Her lips were quivering, her eyes strained. She could hide her anxiety from her immediate companions, but the colonel was Harry's father.
The colonel turned quickly: "Resent it here! under his own roof, and the man his guest? That is one thing, my dear, a Rutter never violates, no matter what the provocation. I have made a special exception in Mr. Willits's favor to-night and Harry knows it. It was at your dear father's request that I invited the young fellow. And then again, I hear the most delightful things about his own father, who though a plain man is of great service to his county—one of Mr. Clay's warmest adherents. All this, you see, makes it all the more incumbent that both my son and myself should treat him with the utmost consideration, and, as I have said, Harry understands this perfectly. You don't know my boy; I would disown him, Kate, if he laid a hand on Mr. Willits—and so should you."
When Dr. Teackle shut the door of the ballroom upon himself and Mark Gilbert the two did not tarry long in the colonel's den, which was still occupied by half a dozen of the older men, who were being beguiled by a relay of hot terrapin that Alec had just served. On the contrary, they continued on past the serving tables, past old Cobden Dorsey, who was steeped to the eyes in Santa Cruz rum punch; past John Purviance, and Gatchell and Murdoch, smacking their lips over the colonel's Madeira, dived through a door leading first to a dark passage, mounted to a short flight of steps leading to another dark passage, and so on through a second door until they reached a small room level with the ground. This was the colonel's business office, where he conducted the affairs of the estate—a room remote from the great house and never entered except on the colonel's special invitation and only then when business of importance necessitated its use.
That business of the very highest importance—not in any way connected with the colonel, though of the very gravest moment—was being enacted here to-night, could be seen the instant Teackle, with Gilbert at his heels, threw open the door. St. George and Harry were in one corner—Harry backed against the wall. The boy was pale, but perfectly calm and silent. On his face was the look of a man who had a duty to perform and who intended to go through with it come what might. On the opposite side of the room stood Willits with two young men, his most intimate friends. They had followed him out of the ballroom to learn the cause of his sudden outburst, and so far had only heard Willits's side of the affair. He was now perfectly sober and seemed to feel his position, but he showed no fear. On the desk lay a mahogany case containing the colonel's duelling pistols. Harry had taken them from his father's closet as he passed through the colonel's den.
St. George turned to the young doctor. His face was calm and thoughtful, and he seemed to realize fully the gravity of the situation.
"It's no use, Teackle," St. George said with an expressive lift of his fingers. "I have done everything a man could, but there is only one way out of it. I have tried my best to save Kate from every unhappiness to-night, but this is something much more important than woman's tears, and that is her lover's honor."
"You mean to tell me, Uncle George, that you can't stop this!" Teackle whispered with some heat, his eyes strained, his lips twitching. Here he faced Harry. "You sha'n't go on with this affair, I tell you, Harry. What will Kate say? Do you think she wants you murdered for a foolish thing like this!—and that's about what will happen."
The boy made no reply, except to shake his head. He knew what Kate would say—knew what she would do, and knew what she would command him to do, could she have heard Willits's continued insults in this very room but a moment before while St. George was trying to make him apologize to his host and so end the disgraceful incident.
"Then I'll go and bring in the colonel and see what he can do!" burst out Teackle, starting for the door. "It's an outrage that—"
"You'll stay here, Teackle," commanded St. George—"right where you stand! This is no place for a father. Harry is of age."
"But what an ending to a night like this!"
"I know it—horrible!—frightful!—but I would rather see the boy lying dead at my feet than not defend the woman he loves." This came in a decisive tone, as if he had long since made up his mind to this phase of the situation.
"But Langdon is Harry's guest," Teackle pleaded, dropping his voice still lower to escape being heard by the group at the opposite end of the room—"and he is still under his roof. It is never done—it is against the code. Besides"—and his voice became a whisper—"Harry never levelled a pistol at a man in his life, and this is not Langdon's first meeting. We can fix it in the morning. I tell you we must fix it."
Harry, who had been listening quietly, reached across the table, picked up the case of pistols, handed it to Gilbert, whom he had chosen as his second, and in a calm, clear, staccato tone—each word a bullet rammed home—said:
"No—Teackle, there will be no delay until to-morrow. Mr. Willits has forfeited every claim to being my guest and I will fight him here and now. I could never look Kate in the face, nor would she ever speak to me again, if I took any other course. You forget that he virtually told Kate she lied," and he gazed steadily at Willits as if waiting for the effect of his shot.
St. George's eyes kindled. There was the ring of a man in the boy's words. He had seen the same look on the elder Rutter's face in a similar situation twenty years before. As a last resort he walked toward where Willits stood conferring with his second.
"I ask you once more, Mr. Willits"—he spoke in his most courteous tones (Willits's pluck had greatly raised him in his estimation)—"to apologize like a man and a gentleman. There is no question in my mind that you have insulted your host in his own house and been discourteous to the woman he expects to marry, and that the amende honorable should come from you. I am twice your age and have had many experiences of this kind, and I would neither ask you to do a dishonorable thing nor would I permit you to do it if I could prevent it. Make a square, manly apology to Harry."
Willits gazed at him with a certain ill-concealed contempt on his face. He was at the time loosening the white silk scarf about his throat in preparation for the expected encounter. He evidently did not believe a word of that part of the statement which referred to Harry's engagement. If Kate had been engaged to Harry she would have told him so.
"You are only wasting your time, Mr. Temple," he answered with an impatient lift of his chin as he stripped his coat from his broad shoulders. "You have just said there is only one way to settle this—I am ready—so are my friends. You will please meet me outside—there is plenty of firelight under the trees, and the sooner we get through this the better. The apology should not come from me, and will not. Come, gentlemen," and he stepped out into the now drizzling night, the glare of the torches falling on his determined face and white shirt as he strode down the path followed by his seconds.
Seven gentlemen hurriedly gathered together, one a doctor and another in full possession of a mahogany case containing two duelling pistols with their accompanying ammunition, G. D. gun caps, powder-horn, swabs and rammers, and it past eleven o'clock at night, would have excited but little interest to the average darky—especially one unaccustomed to the portents and outcomes of such proceedings.
Not so Alec, who had absorbed the situation at a glance. He had accompanied his master on two such occasions—one at Bladensburg and the other on a neighboring estate, when the same suggestive tokens had been visible, except that those fights took place at daybreak, and after every requirement of the code had been complied with, instead of under the flare of smoking pine torches and within a step of the contestant's front door. He had, besides, a most intimate knowledge of the contents of the mahogany case, it being part of his duty to see that these defenders of the honor of all the Rutters—and they had been in frequent use—were kept constantly oiled and cleaned. He had even cast some bullets the month before under the colonel's direction. That he was present to-night was entirely due to the fact that having made a short cut to the kitchen door in order to hurry some dishes, he had by the merest chance, and at the precise psychological moment, run bump up against the warlike party just before they had reached the duelling ground. This was a well-lighted path but a stone's throw from the porch, and sufficiently hidden by shrubbery to be out of sight of the ballroom windows.
The next moment the old man was in full cry to the house. He had heard the beginning of the trouble while he was carrying out St. George's orders regarding the two half-emptied bowls of punch and understood exactly what was going to happen, and why.
"Got de colonel's pistols!" he choked as he sped along the gravel walk toward the front door the quicker to reach the ballroom—"and Marse Harry nothin' but a baby! Gor-a-Mighty! Gor-a-Mighty!" Had they all been grown-ups he might not have minded—but his "Marse Harry," the child he brought up, his idol—his chum!—"Fo' Gawd, dey sha'n't kill 'im—dey sha'n't!—DEY SHA'N'T!!"
He had reached the porch now, swung back the door, and with a sudden spring—it was wonderful how quick he moved—had dashed into the ballroom, now a maze of whirling figures—a polka having struck up to keep everybody occupied until the reel was finally made up.
"Marse Talbot!—Marse Talbot!" All domestic training was cast aside, not a moment could be lost—"All on ye!—dey's murder outside—somebody go git de colonel!—Oh, Gawd!—somebody git 'im quick!"
Few heard him and nobody paid any attention to his entreaties; nor could anybody, when they did listen, understand what he wanted—the men swearing under their breath, the girls indignant that he had blocked their way. Mrs. Rutter, who had seen his in-rush, sat aghast. Had Alec, too, given way, she wondered—old Alec who had had full charge of the wine cellar for years! But the old man pressed on, still shouting, his voice almost gone, his eyes bursting from his head.
"Dey's gwineter murder Marse Harry—I seen 'em! Oh!—whar's de colonel! Won't somebody please—Oh, my Gawd!—dis is awful! Don't I tell ye dey's gwineter kill Marse Harry!"
Mrs. Cheston, sitting beside Kate, was the only one who seemed to understand.
"Alec!" she called in her imperious voice—"Alec!—come to me at once! What is the matter?"
The old butler shambled forward and stood trembling, the tears streaming down his cheeks.
"Yes, mum—I'm yere! Oh, can't ye git de colonel—ain't nobody else'll do—"
"Is it a duel?"
"Yes, mum! I jes' done see 'em! Dey's gwineter kill my Marse Harry!"
Kate sprang up. "Where are they?" she cried, shivering with fear. The old man's face had told the story.
"Out by de greenhouse—dey was measurin' off de groun'—dey's got de colonel's pistols—you kin see 'em from de winder!"
In an instant she had parted the heavy silk curtains and lifted the sash. She would have thrown herself from it if Mrs. Cheston had not held her, although it was but a few feet from the ground.
"Harry!" she shrieked—an agonizing shriek that reverberated through the ballroom, bringing everybody and everything to a stand-still. The dancers looked at each other in astonishment. What had happened? Who had fainted?
The colonel now passed through the room. He had been looking after the proper handling of the famous Madeira, and had just heard that Alec wanted him, and was uncertain as to the cause of the disturbance. A woman's scream had reached his ears, but he did not know it was Kate's or he would have quickened his steps.
Again Kate's voice pierced the room:
"Harry! HARRY!"—this time in helpless agony. She had peered into the darkness made denser by the light rain, and had caught a glimpse of a man standing erect without his coat, the light of the torches bringing his figure into high relief—whose she could not tell, the bushes were so thick.
The colonel brushed everybody aside and pulled Kate, half fainting, into the room. Then he faced Mrs. Cheston.
"What has happened?" he asked sharply. "What is going on outside?"
"Just what I told you. Those fools are out there trying to murder each other!"
Two shots in rapid succession rang clear on the night air.
The colonel stood perfectly still. No need to tell him now what had happened, and worse yet, no need to tell him what WOULD happen if he showed the slightest agitation. He was a cool man, accustomed to critical situations, and one who never lost his head in an emergency. Only a few years before he had stopped a runaway hunter, with a girl clinging to a stirrup, by springing straight at the horse's head and bringing them both to the ground unhurt. It only required the same instantaneous concentration of all his forces, he said to himself, as he gazed into old Alec's terror-stricken face framed by the open window. Once let the truth be known and the house would be in a panic—women fainting, men rushing out, taking sides with the combatants, with perhaps other duels to follow—Mrs. Rutter frantic, the ball suddenly broken up, and this, too, near midnight, with most of his guests ten miles and more from home.
Murmurs of alarm were already reaching his ears: What was it?—who had fainted?—did the scream come from inside or outside the room?—what was the firing about?
He turned to allay Kate's anxiety, but she had cleared the open window at a bound and was already speeding toward where she had seen the light on the man's shirt. For an instant he peered after her into the darkness, and then, his mind made up, closed the sash with a quick movement, flung together the silk curtains and raised his hand to command attention.
"Keep on with the dance, my friends; I'll go and find out what has happened—but it's nothing that need worry anybody—only a little burnt powder. Alec, go and tell Mr. Grant, the overseer, to keep better order outside. In the meantime let everybody get ready for the Virginia reel; supper will be served in a few minutes. Will you young gentlemen please choose your partners, and will some one of you kindly ask the music to start up?"
Slowly, and quite as if he had been called to the front door to welcome some belated guest, he walked the length of the room preceded by Alec, who, agonized at his master's measured delay, had forged ahead to open the door. This closed and they out of sight, the two hurried down the path.
Willits lay flat on the ground, one arm stretched above his head. He had measured his full length, the weight of his shoulder breaking some flower-pots as he fell. Over his right eye gaped an ugly wound from which oozed a stream of blood that stained his cheek and throat. Dr. Teackle, on one knee, was searching the patient's heart, while Kate, her pretty frock soiled with mud, her hair dishevelled, sat crouched in the dirt rubbing his hands—sobbing bitterly—crying out whenever Harry, who was kneeling beside her, tried to soothe her:—"No!—No!—My heart's broken—don't speak to me—go away!"
The colonel, towering above them, looked the scene over, then he confronted Harry, who had straightened to his feet on seeing his father.
"A pretty piece of work—and on a night like this! A damnable piece of work, I should say, sir!... Has he killed him, Teackle?"
The young doctor shook his head ominously.
"I cannot tell yet—his heart is still beating."
St. George now joined the group. He and Gilbert and the other seconds had, in order to maintain secrecy, been rounding up the few negroes who had seen the encounter, or who had been attracted to the spot by the firing.
"Harry had my full consent, Talbot—there was really nothing else to do. Only an ounce of cold lead will do in some cases, and this was one of them." He was grave and deliberate in manner, but there was an infinite sadness in his voice.
"He did—did he?" retorted the colonel bitterly. "YOUR full consent! YOURS! and I in the next room!" Here he beckoned to one of the negroes who, with staring eyeballs, stood gazing from one to the other. "Come closer, Eph—not a whisper, remember, or I'll cut the hide off your back in strips. Tell the others what I say—if a word of this gets into the big house or around the cabins I'll know who to punish. Now two or three of you go into the greenhouse, pick up one of those wide planks, and lift this gentleman onto it so we can carry him. Take him into my office, doctor, and lay him on my lounge. He'd better die there than here. Come, Kate—do you go with me. Not a syllable of this, remember, Kate, to Mrs. Rutter, or anybody else. As for you, sir"—and he looked Harry squarely in the face—"you will hear from me later on."
With the same calm determination, he entered the ballroom, walked to the group forming the reel, and, with a set smile on this face indicating how idle had been everybody's fears, said loud enough to be heard by every one about him:
"Only one of the men, my dear young people, who has been hurt in the too careless use of some firearms. As to dear Kate—she has been so upset—she happened unfortunately to see the affair from the window—that she has gone to her room and so you must excuse her for a little while. Now everybody keep on with the dance."
With his wife he was even more at ease. "The same old root of all evil, my dear," he said with a dry laugh—"too much peach brandy, and this time down the wrong throats—and so in their joy they must celebrate by firing off pistols and wasting my good ammunition," an explanation which completely satisfied the dear lady—peach brandy being capable of producing any calamity, great or small.
But this would not do for Mrs. Cheston. She was a woman who could be trusted and who never, on any occasion, lost her nerve. He saw from the way she lifted her eyebrows in inquiry, instead of framing her question in words, that she fully realized the gravity of the situation. The colonel looked at her significantly, made excuse to step in front of her, his back to the room, and with his forefinger tapping his forehead, whispered:
The old lady paled, but she did not change her expression.
"And Harry?" she murmured in return.
The colonel kept his eyes upon her, but he made no answer. A hard, cold look settled on his face—one she knew—one his negroes feared when he grew angry.
Again she repeated Harry's name, this time in alarm:
"Quick!—tell me—not killed?"
"No—I wish to God he were!"
The wounded man lay on a lounge in the office room, which was dimly lighted by the dying glow of the outside torches and an oil lamp hurriedly brought in. No one was present except St. George, Harry, the doctor, and a negro woman who had brought in some pillows and hot water. All that could be done for him had been done; he was unconscious and his life hung by a thread. Harry, now that the mysterious thing called his "honor" had been satisfied, was helping Teackle wash the wound prior to an attempt to probe for the ball.
The boy was crying quietly—the tears streaming unbidden down his cheeks—it was his first experience at this sort of thing. He had been brought up to know that some day it might come and that he must then face it, but he had never before realized the horror of what might follow. And yet he had not reached the stage of regret; he was sorry for the wounded man and for his suffering, but he was not sorry for his own share in causing it. He had only done his duty, and but for a stroke of good luck he and Willits might have exchanged places. Uncle George had expressed his feelings exactly when he said that only a bit of cold lead could settle some insults, and what insult could have been greater than the one for which he had shot Willits? What was a gentleman to do? Go around meeting his antagonist every day?—the two ignoring each other? Or was he to turn stable boy, and pound him with his fists?—or, more ridiculous still, have him bound over to keep the peace, or bring an action for—Bah!—for what?—Yes—for what? Willits hadn't struck him, or wounded him, or robbed him. It had been his life or Willits's. No—there was no other way—couldn't be any other way. Willits knew it when he tore up Kate's card—knew what would follow. There was no deception—nothing underhand. And he had got precisely what he deserved, sorry as he felt for his sufferings.
Then Kate's face rose before him—haunted him. Why hadn't she seen it this way? Why had she refused to look at him—refused to answer him—driven him away from her side, in fact?—he who had risked his life to save her from insult! Why wouldn't she allow him to even touch her hand? Why did she treat Willits—drunken vulgarian as he was—differently from the way she had treated him? She had broken off her engagement with him because he was drunk at Mrs. Cheston's ball, where nobody had been hurt but himself, and here she was sympathizing with another drunken man who had not only outraged all sense of decency toward her, but had jeopardized the life of her affianced husband who defended her against his insults; none of which would have happened had the man been sober. All this staggered him.
More astounding still was her indifference. She had not even asked if he had escaped unhurt, but had concentrated all her interest upon the man who had insulted her. As to his own father's wrath—that he had expected. It was his way to break out, and this he knew would continue until he realized the enormity of the insult to Kate and heard how he and St. George had tried to ward off the catastrophe. Then he would not only change his opinion, but would commend him for his courage.
Outside the sick-room such guests as could be trusted were gathered together in the colonel's den, where they talked in whispers. All agreed that the ladies and the older men must be sent home as soon as possible, and in complete ignorance of what had occurred. If Willits lived—of which there was little hope—his home would be at the colonel's until he fully recovered, the colonel having declared that neither expense nor care would be spared to hasten his recovery. If he died, the body would be sent to his father's house later on.
With this object in view the dance was adroitly shortened, the supper hurried through, and within an hour after midnight the last carriage and carryall of those kept in ignorance of the duel had departed, the only change in the programme being the non-opening of the rare old bottle of Madeira and the announcement of Harry's and Kate's engagement—an omission which provoked little comment, as it had been known to but few.
Kate remained. She had tottered upstairs holding on to the hand-rail and had thrown herself on a bed in the room leading out of the dressing-room, where she lay in her mud-stained dress, the silken petticoat torn and bedraggled in her leap from the window. She was weeping bitterly, her old black mammy sitting beside her trying to comfort her as best she could.
With the departure of the last guest—Mr. Seymour among them; the colonel doing the honors; standing bare-headed on the porch, his face all smiles as he bade them good-by—the head of the house of Rutter turned quickly on his heel, passed down the corridor, made his way along the long narrow hall, and entered his office, where the wounded man lay. Harry, the negro woman, and Dr. Teackle alone were with him.
"Is there any change?" he asked in a perfectly even voice. Every vestige of the set smile of the host had left his face. Harry he did not even notice.
"Not much—he is still alive," replied the doctor.
"Have you found the ball?"
"No—I have not looked for it—I will presently."
The colonel moved out a chair and sat down beside the dying man, his eyes fixed on the lifeless face. Some wave of feeling must have swept through him, for after a half-stifled sigh, he said in a low voice, as if to himself:
"This will be a fine story to tell his father, won't it?—and here too—under my roof. My God!—was there ever anything more disgraceful!" He paused for a moment, his eyes still on the sufferer, and then went on—this time to the doctor—"His living so long gives me some hope—am I right, Teackle?"
The doctor nodded, but he made no audible reply. He had bent closer to the man's chest and was at the moment listening intently to the labored breathing, which seemed to have increased.
Harry edged nearer to the patient, his eyes seeking for some move of life. All his anger had faded. Willits, his face ablaze with drink and rage, his eyes flashing, his strident voice ringing out—even Kate's shocked, dazed face, no longer filled his mind. It was the suffering man—trembling on the verge of eternity, shot to death by his own ball—that appealed to him. And then the suddenness of it all—less than an hour had passed since this tall, robust young fellow stood before him on the stairs, hanging upon every word that fell from Kate's lips—and here he lay weltering in his own blood.
Suddenly his father's hopeful word to the doctor sounded in his ears. Suppose, after all, Willits SHOULD get well! Then Kate would understand and forgive him! As this thought developed in his mind his spirits rose. He scanned the sufferer the more intently, straining his neck, persuading himself that a slight twitching had crossed the dying man's face. Almost instantaneously the doctor rose to his feet.
"Quick, Harry!—hand me that brandy! It's just as I hoped—the ball has ploughed outside the skull—the brain is untouched. It was the shock that stunned him. Leave the room everybody—you too, colonel—he'll come to in a minute and must not be excited."
Harry sprang from his chair, a great surge of thankfulness rising in his heart, caught up the decanter, filled a glass and pressed it to the sufferer's lips. The colonel sat silent and unmoved. He had seen too many wounded men revive and then die to be unduly excited. That Willets still breathed was the only feature of his case that gave him any hope.
Harry shot an inquiring glance at his father, and receiving only a cold stare in return, hurried from the room, his steps growing lighter as he ran. Kate must hear the good news and with the least possible delay. He would not send a message—he would go himself; then he could explain and relieve her mind. She would listen to his pleading. It was natural she should have been shocked. He himself had been moved to sympathy by the sufferer's condition—how much more dreadful, then, must have been the sight of the wounded man lying there among the flower-pots to a woman nurtured so carefully and one so sensitive in spirit! But it was all over—Willits would live—there would be a reconciliation—everything would be forgiven and everything forgotten.
All these thoughts crowded close in his mind as he rushed up the stairs two steps at a time to where his sweetheart lay moaning out her heart. He tapped lightly and her old black mammy opened the door on a crack.
"It's Marse Harry, mistis," she called back over her shoulder—"shall I let him come in?"
"No!—no!—I don't want to see him; I don't want to see anybody—my heart is broken!" came the reply in half-stifled sobs.
Harry, held at bay, rested his forehead against the edge of the door so his voice could reach her the better.
"But Willits isn't going to die, Kate dear. I have just left him; it's only a scalp wound. Dr. Teackle says he's all right. The shock stunned him into unconsciousness."
"Oh, I don't care what Dr. Teackle says! It's you, Harry!—You! You never once thought of me—Oh, why did you do it?"
"I did think of you, Kate! I never thought of anything else—I am not thinking of anything else now."
"Oh, to think you tried to murder him! You, Harry—whom I loved so!" she sobbed.
"It was for you, Kate! You heard what he said—you saw it all. It was for you—for nobody else—for you, my darling! Let me come in—let me hold you close to me and tell you."
"No!—NO—NO! My heart is broken! Come to me, mammy!"
The door shut gently and left him on the outside, dazed at the outcry, his heart throbbing with tenderness and an intense, almost ungovernable impulse to force his way into the room, take her in his arms, and comfort her.
The closed door brought him to his senses. To-morrow, after all, would be better, he confessed to himself humbly. Nothing more could be done to-night. Yes—to-morrow he would tell her all. He turned to descend the stairs and ran almost into Alec's arms. The old man was trembling with excitement and seemed hardly able to control himself. He had come in search of him, and had waited patiently at Kate's door for the outcome of the interview, every word of which he had overheard.
"Marse Talbot done sont me fer ye, Marse Harry," he said in a low voice; "he wants ye in his li'l' room. Don't ye take no notice what de young mistis says; she ain't griebin' fer dat man. Dat Willits blood ain't no 'count, nohow; dey's po' white trash, dey is—eve'ybody knows dat. Let Miss Kate cry herse'f out; dat's de on'y help now. Mammy Henny'll look arter her till de mawnin'"—to none of which did Harry make answer.
When they reached the bottom step leading to the long hall the old man stopped and laid his hand on his young master's shoulder. His voice was barely audible and two tears stood in his eyes.
"Don't you take no notice ob what happens to-night, son," he whispered. "'Member ye kin count on ol' Alec. Ain't neber gwineter be nothin' come 'twixt me an' you, son. I ain't neber gwineter git tired lovin' ye—you won't fergit dat, will ye?"
"No, Alec, but Mr. Willits will recover. Dr. Teackle has just said so."
"Oh, dat ain't it, son—it's you, Marse Harry. Don't let 'em down ye—stand up an' fight 'em back."
Harry patted the old servant tenderly on the arm to calm his fears. His words had made but little impression on him. If he had heard them at all he certainly did not grasp their import. What he was wanted for he could not surmise—nor did he much care. Now that Kate had refused to see him he almost wished that Willits's bullet had found its target.
"Where did you say my father was, Alec?" he asked in a listless voice.
"In his li'l' room, son; dey's all in dar, Marse George Temple, Mister Gilbert—dem two gemmans who stood up wid Mister Willits—dey's all dar. Don't mind what dey say, honey—jes' you fall back on ol' Alec. I dassent go in; maybe I'll be yere in de pantry so ye kin git hold o' me. I'se mos' crazy, Marse Harry—let me git hold oh yo' hand once mo', son. Oh, my Gawd!—dey sha'n't do nothin' to ye!"
The boy took the old man's hand in his, patted it gently and resumed his walk. The least said the better when Alec felt like this. It was Kate's voice that pierced his ears—Kate's sobs that wrenched his heart: "You never thought of me!" Nothing else counted.
Harry turned the handle of the door and stepped boldly in, his head erect, his eyes searching the room. It was filled with gentlemen, some sitting, some standing; not only those who had taken part in the duel, but three or four others who were in possession of the secret that lay heavy on everybody's mind.
He looked about him: most of the candles had burned low in the socket; some had gone out. The few that still flickered cast a dim, ghostly light. The remains of the night's revel lay on the larger table and the serving tables:—a half empty silver dish of terrapin, caked over with cold grease; portion of a ham with the bone showing; empty and partly filled glasses and china cups from which the toddies and eggnog had been drunk. The smell of rum and lemons intermingled with the smoke of snuffed-out candle wicks greeted his nostrils—a smell he remembered for years and always with a shudder.
There had evidently been a heated discussion, for his father was walking up and down the room, his face flushed, his black eyes blazing with suppressed anger, his plum-colored coat unbuttoned as if to give him more breathing space, his silk scarf slightly awry. St. George Temple must have been the cause of his wrath, for the latter's voice was reverberating through the room as Harry stepped in.
"I tell you, Talbot, you shall not—you DARE not!" St. George was exclaiming, his voice rising in the intensity of his indignation. His face was set, his eyes blazing; all his muscles taut. He stood like an avenging knight guarding some pathway. Harry looked on in amazement—he had never seen his uncle like this before.
The colonel wheeled about suddenly and raised his clenched hand. He seemed to be nervously unstrung and for a moment to have lost his self-control.
"Stop, St. George!" he thundered. "Stop instantly! Not another word, do you hear me? Don't strain a friendship that has lasted from boyhood or I may forget myself as you have done. No man can tell me what I shall or shall not do when my honor is at stake. Never before has a Rutter disgraced himself and his blood. I am done with him, I tell you!"
"But the man will get well!" hissed St. George, striding forward and confronting him. "Teackle has just said so—you heard him; we all heard him!"
"That makes no difference; that does not relieve my son."
Rutter had now become aware of Harry's presence. So had the others, who turned their heads in the boy's direction, but no one spoke. They had not the lifelong friendship that made St. George immune, and few of them would have dared to disagree with Talbot Rutter in anything.
"And now, sir"—here the colonel made a step towards where Harry stood, the words falling as drops of water fall on a bared head—"I have sent for you to tell you just what I have told these gentlemen. I have informed them openly because I do not wish either my sense of honor or my motives to be misunderstood. Your performances to-night have been so dastardly and so ill-bred as to make it impossible for me ever to live under the same roof with you again." Harry started and his lips parted as if to speak, but he made no sound. "You have disgraced your blood and violated every law of hospitality. Mr. Willits should have been as safe here as you would have been under his father's roof. If he misbehaved himself you could have ordered his carriage and settled the affair next day, as any gentleman of your standing would have done. I have sent for a conveyance to take you wherever you may wish to go." Then, turning to St. George, "I must ask you, Temple, to fill my place and see that these gentlemen get their proper carriages, as I must join Mrs. Rutter, who has sent for me. Good-night," and he strode from the room.
Harry stared blankly into the faces of the men about him: first at St. George and then at the others—one after another—as if trying to read what was passing in their minds. No one spoke or moved. His father's intentions had evidently been discussed before the boy's arrival and the final denunciation had, therefore, been received with less of the deadening effect than it had produced on himself. Nor was it a surprise to old Alec, who despite his fears had followed Harry noiselessly into the room, and who had also overheard the colonel's previous outbreak as to his intended disposition of his young master.
St. George, who during the outburst had stood leaning against the mantel, his eyes riveted on Harry, broke the silence.
"That, gentlemen," he exclaimed, straightening to his feet, one hand held high above his head, "is the most idiotic and unjust utterance that ever fell from Talbot Rutter's lips! and one he will regret to his dying day. This boy you all know—most of you have known him from childhood, and you know him, as I do, to be the embodiment of all that is brave and truthful. He is just of age—without knowledge of the world, his engagement to Kate Seymour, as some of you are aware, was to be made known to-night. Willits was drunk or he would not have acted as he did. I saw it coming and tried to stop him. That he was drunk was Rutter's own fault, with his damned notions of drowning everybody in drink every minute of the day and night. I saw the whole affair and heard the insult, and it was wholly unprovoked. Harry did just what was right, and if he hadn't I'd either have made Willits apologize or I would have shot him myself the moment the affair could have been arranged, no matter where we were. I know perfectly well"—here he swept his eyes around—"that there is not a man in this room who does not feel as I do about Rutter's treatment of this boy, and so I shall not comment further upon it." He dropped his clenched hand and turned to Harry, his voice still clear and distinct but with a note of tenderness through it. "And now, that pronunciamentos are in order, my boy, here is one which has less of the Bombastes Furioso in it than the one you have just listened to—but it's a damned sight more humane and a damned sight more fatherly, and it is this:—hereafter you belong to me—you are my son, my comrade, and, if I ever have a dollar to give to any one, my heir. And now one thing more, and I don't want any one of you gentlemen within sound of my voice ever to forget it: When hereafter any one of you reckon with Harry you will please remember that you reckon with me."
He turned suddenly. "Excuse me one moment, gentlemen, and I will then see that you get your several carriages. Alec!—where's Alec?"
The old darky stepped out of the shadow. "I'm yere, sah."
"Alec, go and tell Matthew to bring my gig to the front porch—and be sure you see that your young master's heavy driving-coat is put inside. Mr. Harry spends the night with me."
The secrecy enjoined upon everybody conversant with the happenings at Moorlands did not last many hours. At the club, across dinner tables, at tea, on the street, and in the libraries of Kennedy Square, each detail was gone over, each motive discussed. None of the facts were exaggerated, nor was the gravity of the situation lightly dismissed. Duels were not so common as to blunt the sensibilities. On the contrary, they had begun to be generally deplored and condemned, a fact largely due to the bitterness resulting from a famous encounter which had taken place a year or so before between young Mr. Cocheran, the son of a rich landowner, and Mr. May—the circumstances being somewhat similar, the misunderstanding having arisen at a ball in Washington over a reigning belle, during which Mr. May had thrown his card in Cocheran's face. In this instance all the requirements of the code were complied with. The duel was fought in an open space behind Nelson's Hotel, near the Capitol, Mr. Cocheran arriving at half-past five in the morning in a magnificent coach drawn by four white horses, his antagonist reaching the grounds in an ordinary conveyance, the seconds and the two surgeons on horseback. Both fired simultaneously, with the result that May escaped unhurt, while Cocheran was shot through the head and instantly killed.
Public opinion, indeed, around Kennedy Square, was, if the truth be told, undergoing many and serious changes. For not only the duel but some other of the traditional customs dear to the old regime were falling into disrepute—especially the open sideboards, synonymous with the lavish hospitality of the best houses. While most of the older heads, brought up on the finer and rarer wines, knew to a glass the limit of their endurance, the younger bloods were constantly losing control of themselves, a fact which was causing the greatest anxiety among the mothers of Kennedy Square.
This growing antipathy had been hastened and solidified by another tragedy quite as widely discussed as the Cocheran and May duel—more so, in fact, since this particular victim of too many toddies had been the heir of one of the oldest residents about Kennedy Square—a brilliant young surgeon, self-exiled because of his habits, who had been thrown from his horse on the Indian frontier—an Iowa town, really—shattering his leg and making its amputation necessary. There being but one other man in the rough camp who had ever seen a knife used—and he but a student—the wounded surgeon had directed the amputation himself, even to the tying of the arteries and the bandages and splints. Only then did he collapse. The hero—and he was a hero to every one who knew of his coolness and pluck, in spite of his recognized weakness—had returned to his father's house on Kennedy Square on crutches, there to consult some specialists, the leg still troubling him. As the cripple's bedroom was at the top of the first flight of stairs, the steps of which—it being summer—were covered with China matting, he was obliged to drag himself up its incline whenever he was in want of something he must fetch himself. One of these necessities was a certain squat bottle like those which had graced the old sideboards. Half a dozen times a day would he adjust his crutches, their steel points preventing his slipping, and mount the stairs to his room, one step at a time.
Some months after, when the matting was taken up, the mother took her youngest boy—he was then fifteen—to the steps:
"Do you see the dents of your brother's crutches?—count them. Every one was a nail in his coffin." They were—for the invalid died that winter.
These marked changes in public opinion, imperceptible as they had been at first, were gradually paving the way, it may be said, for the dawn of that new order of things which only the wiser and more farsighted men—men like Richard Horn—were able to discern. While many of the old regime were willing to admit that the patriarchal life, with the negro as the worker and the master as the spender, had seen its best days, but few of them, at the period of these chronicles, realized that the genius of Morse, Hoe, and McCormick, and a dozen others, whose inventions were just beginning to be criticised, and often condemned, were really the chief factors in the making of a new and greater democracy: that the cog, the drill, the grate-bar, and the flying shuttle would ere long supplant the hoe and the scythe; and that when the full flood of this new era was reached their old-time standards of family pride, reckless hospitality, and even their old-fashioned courtesy would well-nigh be swept into space. The storm raised over this and the preceding duel had they but known it, was but a notch in the tide-gauge of this flood.
"I understand, St. George, that you could have stopped that disgraceful affair the other night if you had raised your hand," Judge Pancoast had blurted out in an angry tone at the club the week following. "I did raise it, judge," replied St. George, calmly drawing off his gloves.
"They don't say so—they say you stood by and encouraged it."
"Quite true," he answered in his dryest voice. "When I raised my hand it was to drop my handkerchief. They fired as it fell."
"And a barbarous and altogether foolish piece of business, Temple. There is no justification for that sort of thing, and if Rutter wasn't a feudal king up in his own county there would be trouble over it. It's God's mercy the poor fellow wasn't killed. Fine beginning, isn't it, for a happy married life?"
"Better not have any wife at all, judge, than wed a woman whose good name you are afraid to defend with your life. There are some of us who can stand anything but that, and Harry is built along the same lines. A fine, noble, young fellow—did just right and has my entire confidence and my love. Think it over, judge," and he strolled into the card-room, picked up the morning paper, and buried his face in its columns, his teeth set, his face aflame with suppressed disgust at the kind of blood running in the judge's veins.
The colonel's treatment of his son also came in for heated discussion. Mrs. Cheston was particularly outspoken. Such quixotic action on the ground of safeguarding the rights of a young drunkard like Willits, who didn't know when he had had enough, might very well do for a self-appointed autocrat like Rutter, she maintained, but some equally respectable people would have him know that they disagreed with him.
"Just like Talbot Rutter," she exclaimed in her outspoken, decided way—"no sense of proportion. High-tempered, obstinate as a mule, and a hundred years—yes, five hundred years behind his time. And he—could have stopped it all too if he had listened to me. Did you ever hear anything so stupid as his turning Harry—the sweetest boy who ever lived—out of doors, and in a pouring rain, for doing what he would have done himself! Oh, this is too ridiculous—too farcical. Why, you can't conceive of the absurdity of it all—nobody can! Gilbert was there and told me every word of it. You would have thought he was a grand duke or a pasha punishing a slave—and the funniest thing about it is that he believes he is a pasha. Oh—I have no patience with such contemptible family pride, and that's what is at the bottom of it."
Some of the back county aristocrats, on the other hand—men who lived by themselves, who took their cue from Alexander Hamilton, Lee, and Webb, and believed in the code as the only means of arbitrating a difficulty of any kind between gentlemen—stoutly defended the Lord of Moorlands.
"Rutter did perfectly right to chuck the young whelp out of doors. Outrageous, sir—never is done—nothing less than murder. Ought to be prosecuted for challenging a man under his own roof—and at night too. No toss-up for position, no seconds except a parcel of boys. Vulgar, sir—infernally vulgar, sir. I haven't the honor of Colonel Rutter's acquaintance—but if I had I'd tell him so—served the brat right—damn him!"
Richard Horn was equally emphatic, but in a far different way. Indeed he could hardly restrain himself when discussing it.
"I can think of nothing my young boy Oliver would or could do when he grows up," he exclaimed fiercely—his eyes flashing, "which would shut him out of his home and his dear mother's care. The duel is a relic of barbarism and should be no longer tolerated; it is mob law, really, and indefensible, with two persons defying the statutes instead of a thousand. But Rutter is the last man in the world to take the stand he has, and I sincerely regret his action. There are many bitter days ahead of him."
Nor were the present conditions, aspirations, and future welfare of the two combatants, and of the lovely girl over whom they had quarrelled, neglected by the gossipers. No day passed without an extended discussion of their affairs. Bearers of fresh news were eagerly welcomed both to toddy and tea tables.
Old Morris Murdoch, who knew Willits's father intimately, being a strong Clay man himself, arrived at one of these functions with the astounding information that Willits had called on Miss Seymour, wearing his hat in her presence to conceal his much-beplastered head. That he had then and there not only made her a most humble apology for his ill-tempered outbreak, which he explained was due entirely to a combination of egg-and-brandy, with a dash of apple-toddy thrown in, but had declared upon his honor as a gentleman that he would never again touch the flowing bowl. Whereupon—(and this excited still greater astonishment)—the delighted young lady had not only expressed her sympathy for his misfortunes, but had blamed herself for what had occurred!
Tom Tilghman, a famous cross-country rider, who had ridden in post haste from his country seat near Moorlands to tell the tale—as could be seen from his boots, which were still covered with mud—boldly asserted of his own knowledge that the wounded man, instead of seeking his native shore, as was generally believed, would betake himself to the Red Sulphur Springs (where Kate always spent the summer)—accompanied by three saddle horses, two servants, some extra bandages, and his devoted sister, there to regain what was left of his health and strength. At which Judge Pancoast had retorted—and with some heat—that Willits might take a dozen saddle horses and an equal number of sisters, and a bale of bandages if he were so minded, to the Springs, or any other place, but he would save time and money if he stayed at home and looked after his addled head, as no woman of Miss Seymour's blood and breeding could possibly marry a man whose family escutcheon needed polishing as badly as did his manners. That the fact—the plain, bold fact—and here the judge's voice rose to a high pitch—was that Willits was boiling drunk until Harry's challenge sobered him, and that Kate hated drunkenness as much as did Harry's mother and the other women who had started out to revolutionize society.
What that young lady herself thought of it all not even the best-posted gossip in the club dared to venture an opinion. Moreover, such was the respect and reverence in which she was held, and so great was the sympathy felt for her situation, that she was seldom referred to in connection with Harry or the affair except with a sigh, followed by a "Too bad, isn't it?—enough to break your heart," and such like expressions.
What the Honorable Prim thought of it all was apparent the next day at the club when he sputtered out with:
"Here's a nice mess for a man of my position to find himself in! Do you know that I am now pointed out as the prospective father-in-law of a young jackanapes who goes about with a glass of grog in one hand and a pistol in the other. I am not accustomed to having my name bandied about and I won't have it—I live a life of great simplicity, minding my own business, and I want everybody else to mind theirs. The whole affair is most contemptible and ridiculous and smacks of the tin-armor age. Willits should have been led quietly out of the room and put to bed and young Rutter should have been reprimanded publicly by his father. Disgraceful on a night like that when my daughter's name was on everybody's lips."
After which outburst he had shut himself up in his house, where, so he told one of his intimates, he intended to remain until he left for the Red Sulphur Springs, which he would do several weeks earlier than was his custom—a piece of news which not only confirmed Tom Tilghman's gossip, but lifted several eyebrows in astonishment and set one or two loose tongues to wagging.
Out at Moorlands, the point of view varied as the aftermath of the tragedy developed, the colonel alone pursuing his daily life without comment, although deep down in his heart a very maelstrom was boiling and seething.
Mrs. Rutter, as fate would have it, on hearing that Kate was too ill to go back to town, had gone the next morning to her bedside, where she learned for the first time not only of the duel—which greatly shocked her, leaving her at first perfectly limp and helpless—but of Harry's expulsion from his father's house—(Alec owned the private wire)—a piece of news which at first terrified and then keyed her up as tight as an overstrung violin. Like many another Southern woman, she might shrink from a cut on a child's finger and only regain her mental poise by a liberal application of smelling salts, but once touch that boy of hers—the child she had nourished and lived for—and all the rage of the she-wolf fighting for her cub was aroused. What took place behind the closed doors of her bedroom when she faced the colonel and flamed out, no one but themselves knew. That the colonel was dumfounded—never having seen her in any such state of mind—goes without saying. That he was proud of her and liked her the better for it, is also true—nothing delighted him so much as courage;—but nothing of all this, impressive as it was, either weakened or altered his resolve.
Nor did he change front to his friends and acquaintances: his honorable name, he maintained, had been trailed in the mud; his boasted hospitality betrayed; his house turned into a common shamble. That his own son was the culprit made the pain and mortification the greater, but it did not lessen his responsibility to his blood. Had not Foscari, to save his honor, in the days of the great republic, condemned his own son Jacopo to exile and death? Had not Virginius slain his daughter? Should he not protect his own honor as well? Furthermore, was not the young man's father a gentleman of standing—a prominent man in the State—a friend not only of his own friend, Henry Clay, but of the governor as well? He, of course, would not have Harry marry into the family had there been a marriageable daughter, but that was no reason why Mr. Willits's only son should not be treated with every consideration. He, Talbot Rutter, was alone responsible for the honor of his house. When your right hand offends you cut it off. His right hand HAD offended him, and he HAD cut it off. Away, then, with the spinning of fine phrases!
And so he let the hornets buzz—and they did swarm and buzz and sting. As long as his wrath lasted he was proof against their assaults—in fact their attacks only confirmed him in his position. It was when all this ceased, for few continued to remonstrate with him after they had heard his final: "I decline to discuss it with you, madame," or the more significant: "How dare you, sir, refer to my private affairs without my permission?"—it was, I say, when all this ceased, and when neither his wife, who after her first savage outbreak had purposely held her peace, nor any of the servants—not even old Alec, who went about with streaming eyes and a great lump in his throat—dared renew their entreaties for Marse Harry's return, that he began to reflect on his course.
Soon the great silences overawed him—periods of loneliness when he sat confronting his soul, his conscience on the bench as judge; his affections a special attorney:—silences of the night, in which he would listen for the strong, quick, manly footstep and the closing of the door in the corridor beyond:—silences of the dawn, when no clatter of hoofs followed by a cheery call rang out for some one to take Spitfire:—silences of the breakfast table, when he drank his coffee alone, Alec tip-toeing about like a lost spirit. Sometimes his heart would triumph and he begin to think out ways and means by which the past could be effaced. Then again the flag of his pride would be raised aloft so that he and all the people could see, and the old hard look would once more settle in his face, the lips straighten and the thin fingers tighten. No—NO! No assassins for him—no vulgar brawlers—and it was at best a vulgar brawl—and this too within the confines of Moorlands, where, for five generations, only gentlemen had been bred!
And yet, product as he was of a regime that worshipped no ideals but its own; hide-bound by the traditions of his ancestry; holding in secret disdain men and women who could not boast of equal wealth and lineage; dictatorial, uncontradictable; stickler for obsolete forms and ceremonies—there still lay deep under the crust of his pride the heart of a father, and, by his standards, the soul of a gentleman.
What this renegade son of his thought of it all; this disturber of his father's sleeping and waking hours, was far easier to discover. Dazed as Harry had been at the parental verdict and heart-broken as he still was over the dire results, he could not, though he tried, see what else he could have done. His father, he argued to himself, had shot and killed a man when he was but little older than himself, and for an offence much less grave than Willits's insult to Kate: he had frequently boasted of it, showing him the big brass button that had deflected the bullet and saved his life. So had his Uncle George, five years before—not a dead man that time, but a lame one—who was still limping around the club and very good friends the two, so far as he knew. Why then blame HIM? As for the law of hospitality being violated, that was but one of the idiosyncrasies of his father, who was daft on hospitality. How could Willits be his guest when he was his enemy? St. George had begged the wounded man to apologize; if he had done so he would have extended his hand and taken him to Kate, who, upon a second apology, would have extended her hand, and the incident would have been closed. It was Willits's stubbornness and bad breeding, then, that had caused the catastrophe—not his own bullet.
Besides no real harm had been done—that is, nothing very serious. Willits had gained strength rapidly—so much so that he had sat up the third day. Moreover, he had the next morning been carried to one of the downstairs bedrooms, where, he understood, Kate had sent her black mammy for news of him, and where, later on, he had been visited by both Mrs. Rutter and Kate—a most extraordinary condescension on the young girl's part, and one for which Willits should be profoundly grateful all the days of his life.
Nor had Willits's people made any complaint; nor, so far as he could ascertain, had any one connected with either the town or county government started an investigation. It was outside the precincts of Kennedy Square, and, therefore, the town prosecuting attorney (who had heard every detail at the Chesapeake from St. George) had not been called upon to act, and it was well known that no minion of the law in and about Moorlands would ever dare face the Lord of the Manor in any official capacity.
Why, then, had he been so severely punished?
While all this talk filled the air it is worthy of comment that after his denunciation of Pancoast's views at the club, St. George never again discussed the duel and its outcome. His mind was filled with more important things:—one in particular—a burning desire to bring the lovers together, no matter at what cost nor how great the barriers. He had not, despite his silence, altered a hair-line of the opinion he had held on the night he ordered the gig, fastened Harry's heavy coat around the young man's shoulders, and started back with him through the rain to his house on Kennedy Square; nor did he intend to. This, summed up, meant that the colonel was a tyrant, Willits a vulgarian, and Harry a hot-headed young knight, who, having been forced into a position where he could neither breathe nor move, had gallantly fought his way out.