He looked up and caught Harry's anxious eyes scanning his own. His old-time, unruffled spirit came to his assistance.
"No, son!" he cried in his cheeriest voice, springing to his feet—"no, we won't worry. It will all come out right—we'll buckle down to it together, you and I. Don't take it too much to heart—we'll get on somehow."
But the boy was not reassured; in fact, he had become more anxious than ever. Not only did the chill continue, but the lump in his throat grew larger every minute.
"But, Uncle George—you told me you borrowed the money to pay those bills my father sent me. And will you now have to pay that back as well?" He did not ask of whom he had borrowed it, nor on what security, nor would either Pawson or his uncle have told him, that being a confidential matter.
"Well, that depends, Harry; but we won't have to pay it right away, which is one comfort. And then again, I can go back to the law. I have yet to make my maiden speech before a jury, but I can do it. Think of it!—everybody in tears, the judge mopping his eyes—court-room breathless. Oh, you just wait until your old uncle gets on his feet before a bench and jury. Come along, old fellow—let us go up into the house." Then in a serious tone—his back to Harry—"Pawson, please bring the full accounts with you in the morning, and now let me thank you for your courtesy. You have been extremely civil, sir, and I appreciate it most highly."
When they had reached the front walk and were about to climb the immaculate steps, St. George, still determined to divert the boy's thoughts from his own financial straits, said with a laugh:
"Todd told you, of course, about your father paying me a visit this morning, did he not?"
"Oh, yes!—a most extraordinary account. You must have enjoyed it," replied Harry, trying to fall into his uncle's mood, his heart growing heavier every moment. "What did he want?"
One of St. George's heat-lightning smiles played over his face: "He wanted two things. He first wanted you, and then he wanted a receipt for a month's board—YOUR board, remember! He went away without either."
A new perspective suddenly opened up in Harry's mind; one that had a gleam of sunshine athwart it.
"But, Uncle George!" he burst out—"don't forget that my father owes you all the money you paid for me! That, of course, will eventually come back to you." This came in a tone of great relief, as if the money was already in his hand.
St. George's face hardened: "None of it will come back to me," he rejoined in a positive tone. "He doesn't owe me one single penny and he never will. That money he owes to you. Whatever you may happen to owe me can wait until you are able to pay it. And now while I am talking about it, there is another thing your father owes you, and that is an humble apology, and that he will pay one of these days in tears and agony. You are neither a beggar nor a cringing dog, and you never will be so long as I can help it!" He stopped, rested his hand on the boy's shoulder, and with a quiver in his voice added:
"Your hand, my son. Short commons after this, may be, but we will make the fight together."
When the two passed through the front door and stepped into the dining-room they found it filled with gentlemen—friends who had heard of the crash and who had come either to extend their sympathy or offer their bank accounts. They had heard of the catastrophe at the club and had instantly left their seats and walked across the park in a body.
To one and all St. George gave a warm pressure of the hand and a bright smile. Had he been the master of ceremonies at a state reception he could not have been more self-possessed or more gallant; his troubles were for himself, never for his guests.
"All in a lifetime—but I am not worrying. The Patapsco pulled out once before and it may again. My only regret is that I cannot, at least for a time, have as many of you as I would wish under my mahogany. But don't let us borrow any trouble; certainly not to-day. Todd, get some glasses and bring me that bottle of Madeira—the one there on the sideboard!" Here he took the precious fluid from Todd's hand and holding high the crusted bottle said with a dry smile—one his friends knew when his irony was aroused: "That wine, gentlemen, saw the light at a time when a man locked his money in an iron box to keep outside thieves from stealing it; to-day he locks his money in a bank's vault and locks the thieves in with it. Extraordinary, is it not, how we gentlemen trust each other? Here, Todd, draw the cork!... Slowly.... Now hand me the bottle—yes—Clayton, that's the same wine that you and Kennedy liked so much the night we had Mr. Poe with us. It is really about all there is left of my father's Black Warrior of 1810. I thought it was all gone, but Todd found two more the other day, one of which I sent to Kennedy. This is the other. Kennedy writes me he is keeping his until we can drink it together. Is everybody's glass full? Then my old toast if you will permit me: 'Here's to love and laughter, and every true friend of my true friend my own!'"
Before the groups had dispersed Harry had the facts in his possession—principally from Judge Pancoast, who gave him a full account of the bank's collapse, some papers having been handed up to him on the bench that morning. Summed up, his uncle was practically ruined—and he, Harry, was the cause of it—the innocent cause, perhaps, but the cause all the same: but for his father's cruelty and his own debts St. George would never have mortgaged his home. That an additional sum—his uncle's entire deposit—had been swallowed up in the crash was but part of the same misfortune. Poe's lines were true, then—never so true as now:
"Some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster Followed fast and followed faster..."
This, then, was ever after to be his place in life—to bring misery wherever he went.
He caught up his hat and walked through the park beside the judge, hoping for some further details of his uncle's present plight and future condition, but the only thing his Honor added to what he already knew was his wonderment over the fact that St. George, having no immediate use for the money except to pay his bills, should have raised so large a sum on a mortgage instead of borrowing it from his friends. It was here that Harry's heart gave a bound:—no one, then, but his uncle, Pawson, and himself knew that he alone was responsible for the catastrophe! That his father should have learned of his share in it did not enter the boy's head.
Todd answered his knock on his return, and in reply to his inquiry informed him that he must not sit up, as "Marse George" had left word that he would be detained until late at a meeting of the creditors of the bank.
And so the unhappy lad, his supper over, sought his bed and, as had occurred more than once before, spent the earlier hours of the night gazing at the ceiling and wondering what would become of him.
With the breaking of the dawn Harry's mind was made up. Before the sun was an hour high he had dressed hurriedly, stolen downstairs so as to wake no one, and closing the front door softly behind him had taken the long path through the park in the direction of the wharves. Once there, he made the rounds of the shipping offices from Light Street wharf to the Falls—and by the time St. George had finished dressing—certainly before he was through his coffee—had entered the name of Henry Rutter on two sets of books—one for a position as supercargo and the other, should nothing better be open, as common seaman. All he insisted upon was that the ship should sail at once. As to the destination, that was of no consequence, nor did the length of the voyage make any difference. He remembered that his intimate friend, Gilbert, had some months before gone as supercargo to China, his father wanting him to see something of the world; and if a similar position were open he could, of course, give references as to his character—a question the agent asked him—but, then, Gilbert had a father to help him. Should no such position be available, he would ship before the mast, or serve as cook or cabin-boy, or even scullion—but he would not live another day or hour dependent on his dear Uncle George, who had impoverished himself in his behalf.
He selected the sea instead of going into the army as a common soldier because the sea had always appealed to him. He loved its freedom and its dangers. Then again, he was young and strong—could climb like a cat—sail a boat—swim—Yes!—the sea was the place! He could get far enough away behind its horizons to hide the struggle he must make to accomplish the one purpose of his life—the earning of his debt.
Filled with this idea he began to perfect his plans, determining to take no one into his confidence until the day before the ship was ready to sail. He would then send for his mother and Alec—bring them all down to St. George's house and announce his intention. That was the best and wisest way. As for Kate—who had now been at home some weeks—he would pour out his heart to her in a letter. This was better than an interview, which she would doubtless refuse:—a letter she would be obliged to read and, perhaps, answer. As for his dear Uncle George—it would be like tearing his heart out to leave him, but this wrench had to be met and it was best to do it quickly and have done with it.
When this last thought took possession a sudden faintness crept over him. How could he leave his uncle? What St. George was to him no one but himself knew—father, friend, comrade, adviser—standard of men and morals—all and more was his beloved uncle. No thought of his heart but he had given him, and never once had he been misunderstood. He could put his arm about his uncle's neck as he would about his mother's and not be thought effeminate or childish. And the courtesy and dignity and fairness with which he had been treated; and the respect St. George showed him—and he only a boy: compelling his older men friends to do the same. Never letting him feel that any foolish act of his young life had been criticised, or that any one had ever thought the less of him because of them.
Breakfast over, during which no allusion was made either to what St. George had accomplished at the conference of creditors the night before, or to Harry's early rising—the boy made his way into the park and took the path he loved. It was autumn, and the mild morning air bespoke an Indian summer day. Passing beneath the lusty magnolias, which flaunted here and there their glossy leaves, he paused under one of the big oaks, whose branches, stripped of most of their foliage, still sheltered a small, vine-covered arbor where he and Kate had often sat—indeed, it was within its cool shade that he had first told her of his love. Here he settled himself on a small wooden bench outside the retreat and gave his thoughts full rein—not to repine, nor to revive his troubles, which he meant to put behind him—but to plan out the letter he was to write Kate. This must be clear and convincing and tell the whole story of his heart. That he might empty it the better he had chosen this place made sacred by her presence. Then again, the park was generally deserted at this hour—the hour between the passing of the men of business and the coming of the children and nurses—and he would not be interrupted—certainly not before this arbor—one off by itself and away from passers-by.
He seated himself on the bench, his eyes overlooking the park. All the hours he had passed with Kate beneath the wide-spreading trees rose in his mind; the day they had read aloud to each other, her pretty feet tucked under her so that the dreadful ants couldn't touch her dainty stockings; the morning when she was late and he had waited and fumed stretching minutes into hours in his impatience; that summer night when the two had hidden behind the big oak so that he could kiss her good-night and none of the others see.
With these memories stirring, his letter was forgotten, and his head dropped upon his breast, as if the weight of all he had lost was greater than he could bear. Grasping his walking-stick the tighter he began tracing figures in the gravel, his thoughts following each line. Suddenly his ears caught the sound of a quick step—one he thought strangely familiar.
He raised his eyes.
Kate had passed him and had given no sign of her presence!
He sprang from his seat:
"Kate!—KATE!—Are you going to treat me as my father treated me! Don't, please!—You'll never see me again—but don't cut me like that: I have never done anything but love you!"
The girl came to a halt, but she did not turn her head, nor did she answer.
"Please, Kate—won't you speak to me? It may be the last time I shall ever see you. I am going away from Kennedy Square. I was going to write you a letter; I came out here to think of what I ought to say—"
She raised her head and half turned her trembling body so that she could see his face, her eyes reading his.
"I didn't think you wanted me to speak to you or you would have looked up."
"I didn't see you until you had passed. Can't we sit down here?—no one will see us."
She suffered him to take her hand and lead her to the bench. There she sat, her eyes still searching his face—a wondering, eager look, discovering every moment some old remembered spot—an eyebrow, or the line at the corner of the mouth, or the round of the cheek—each and every one bringing back to her the days that were past and gone never to return.
"You are going away?" she said at last—"why? Aren't you happy with Uncle George? He would miss you, I am sure." She had let the scarf fall from her shoulders as she spoke, bringing into view the full round of her exquisite throat. He had caught its flash, but he could not trust himself to look the closer.
"Not any more than I shall miss him," he rejoined sadly; "but he has lost almost everything he had in the bank failure and I cannot have him support me any longer—so I am going to sea."
Kate started forward and laid her hand on his wrist: "To sea!—in a ship! Where?" The inquiry came with such suddenness and with so keen a note of pain in her voice that Harry's heart gave a bound. It was not St. George's losses then she was thinking of—she was thinking of him! He raised his eyes quickly and studied her face the closer; then his heart sank again. No!—he was wrong—there was only wonder in her gaze; only her usual curiosity to know every detail of what was going on around her.
With a sigh he resumed his bent position, talking to the end of his walking-stick tracing figures in the gravel: "I shall go to Rio, probably," he continued in the same despondent tone—"or China. That's why I called after you. I sail day after to-morrow—Saturday at the latest—and it may be a good many years before I get back again, and so I didn't want to go, Kate, without telling you that—that—I forgive you for everything you have done to me—and whether you forgive me or not, I have kept my promises to you, and I will always keep them as long as I live."
"What does dear Uncle George think of it?" She too was addressing the end of the stick; gaining time to make up her mind what to do and say. The old wound, of course, could not be opened, but she might save him and herself from fresh ones.
"He doesn't know I am going; nobody knows but you. I have been a curse to every one who has been kind to me, and I am going now where there will be nobody but strangers about me. To leave Uncle George breaks my heart, but so does it break my heart to leave my precious mother and dear old Alec, who cries all the time and has now taken to his bed, I hear."
She waited, but her name was not added to the list, nor did he raise his head.
"I deserve it all, I suspect," he went on, "or it wouldn't be sent to me; but it's over now. If I ever come back it will be when I am satisfied with myself; if I never come back, why then my former hard luck has followed me—that's all. And now may I talk to you, Kate, as I used to do sometimes?" He straightened up, threw down his cane, and turned his shoulders so he could look her squarely in the eyes. "If I say anything that offends you you can get up and walk away and I won't follow you, nor will I add another word. You may never see me again, and if it is not what I ought to say, you can forget it all when I am gone. Kate!"—he paused, and for a moment it was all he could do to control himself. "What I want to tell you first is this—that I haven't had a happy day or hour since that night on the stairs in my father's house. Whether I was right or wrong I don't know; what followed is what I couldn't help, but that part I don't regret, and if any one should behave to you as Willits did I would do it over again. What I do regret is the pain it has caused you. And now here comes this awful sorrow to Uncle George, and I am the cause of that too."
She turned her face quickly, the color leaving her cheeks as if alarmed. Had he been behaving badly again? But he swept it away with his next sentence.
"You see, my father refused to pay any of the bills I owed and Uncle George paid them for me—and I can't have that go on a day longer—certainly not now."
Kate's shoulders relaxed. A sigh of relief spent itself; Harry was still an honest gentleman, whatever else he might have done!
"And now comes the worst of it, Kate." His voice sank almost to a whisper, as if even the birds should not hear this part of his confession: "Yes—the worst of it—that I have had all this to suffer—all this misery to endure—all these insults of my father to bear without you! Always, before, we have talked things out together; then you were shut away and I could only look up at your windows and rack my brain wondering where you were and what you were doing. It's all over now—you love somebody else—but I shall never love anybody else: I can't! I don't want to! You are the last thing I kiss before I close my eyes; I shut them and kiss only the air—but it is your lips I feel; and you are the first thing I open them upon when I wake. It will always be so, Kate—you are my body, my soul, and my life. I shall never have you again, I know, but I shall have your memory, and that is sweeter and more precious to me than all else in the world!"
"Harry!" There was a strange cadence in her voice—not of self-defence—not of recrimination—only of overwhelming pity: "Don't you think that I too have had my troubles? Do you think it was nothing to me to love you as I did and have—" She stopped, drew in her breath as if to bolster up some inward resolution, and then with a brave lift of the head added: "No, I won't go into that—not to-day."
"Yes—tell me all of it—you can't hurt me more than you have done. But you may be right—no, we won't talk of that part of it. And now, Kate, I won't ask you to stay any longer; I am glad I saw you—it was better than writing." He leaned forward: "Let me look into your face once more, won't you?—so I can remember the better.... Yes—the same dear eyes—and the hair growing low on the temples, and the beautiful mouth and—No—I sha'n't forget—I never have." He rose from his seat and held out his hand: "You'll take it, won't you?—just once—Good-by!"
She had not moved, nor had she grasped his hand; her face was still towards him, her whole frame tense, the tears crowding to the lids.
"Sit down, Harry. I can't let you go like this. Tell me something more of where you are going. Why must you go to sea? Can't you support yourself here?—isn't there something you can get to do? I will see my father and find out if—"
"No, you won't." There was a note almost of defiance in his voice—one she had never heard before. "I am through with accepting favors from any living man. Hereafter I stand in my own shoes, independent of everybody. My father is the only person who has a right to give me help, and as he refuses absolutely to do anything more than pay my board, I must fall back on myself. I didn't see these things in this same way when Uncle George paid my debts, or even when he took me into his home as his guest, but I do now."
Something gave a little bound in Kate's heart. This manly independence was one of the things she had in the old days hoped was in him. What had come over her former lover, she wondered.
"And another thing, Kate"—she was listening eagerly—she could not believe it was Harry who was speaking—"if you were to tell me this moment that you loved me again and would marry me, and I still be as I am to-day—outlawed by my father and dependent on charity—I would not do it. I can't live on your money, and I have none of my own. Furthermore, I owe dear Uncle George his money in such a way that I can never pay it back except I earn it, and that I can't do here. To borrow it of somebody else to pay him would be more disgraceful still."
Again her heart gave a bound. Her father had followed the opposite course, and she knew for a certainty just what some men thought of him, and she could as easily recall half a dozen younger men who had that very summer been willing to play the same game with herself. Something warm and sympathetic struggled up through her reserve.
"Would you stay, Harry, if I asked you to?" she said in almost a whisper. She had not meant to put the question quite in that way, but somehow it had asked itself.
He looked at her with his soft brown eyes, the long lashes shading their tender brilliancy. He had guessed nothing of the newly awakened throb in her heart; only his situation stared him in the face, and in this she had no controlling interest; nor could she now that she loved somebody else.
"No, Kate, it wouldn't alter anything. It would be putting off the day when it would all have to be done over again; and then it would be still worse because of the hopes it had raised."
"Do you really mean, Harry, that you would not stay if I asked you?" It was not her heart which was speaking, but the pride of the woman who had always had her own way.
"I certainly do," he answered emphatically, his voice ringing clear. "Every day I lose is just so much taken from a decent, independent life."
A sudden revulsion of feeling swept through her. This was the last thing she had expected from Harry. What had come over him that he should deny her anything?—he who had always obeyed her slightest wish. Then a new thought entered her head—why should she humble herself to ask any more questions? With a quick movement she gained her feet and stood toying with her dress, arranging the lace scarf about her throat, tightening the wide strings that held her teacup of a bonnet close to her face. She raised her eyes and stole a glance at him. The lips were still firmly set with the resolve that had tightened them, but his eyes were brimming tears.
As suddenly as her pride had risen did it die out. All the tenderness of her nature welled up. She made one step in his direction. She was about to speak, but he had not moved, nor did his face relax. She saw that nothing could shake his resolve; they were as far apart as if the seas already rolled between them. She held out her hand, and with that same note of infinite pathos which he knew so well when she spoke straight from her heart, said as she laid her fingers in his:
"Good-by, and God bless you, Harry."
"Good-by, Kate," he murmured in barely audible tones. "May I—may I—kiss you on the forehead, as I always used to do when I left you—"
She bent her head: he leaned over and touched the spot with his lips as reverently as a sinner kisses the garment of a saint, then, choking down her tears, all her body unstrung, her mind in a whirl, she turned and passed out of the park.
That same afternoon Kate called her father into her little sitting-room at the top of the stairs and shut the door.
"Harry Rutter is going to sea as a common sailor on one of the ships leaving here in a couple of days. Can you find out which one?—it may be one of your own." He was still perfunctory agent of the line.
"Young Rutter going to sea!"—the nomenclature of "my dear Harry" had ended since the colonel had disinherited him. "Well—that is news! I suspect that will be the best place for him; then if he plays any of his pranks there will be somebody around with a cat-o'-nine-tails to take it out of him. Going to sea, is he?"
Kate looked at him with lowered lids, her lips curling slightly, but she did not defend the culprit. It was only one of what Prim called his "jokes:" he was the last man in the world to wish any such punishment. Moreover, she knew her father much better than the Honorable Prim knew his daughter, and whenever she had a favor to ask was invariably careful not to let his little tea-kettle boil over.
"Only a short time ago, father, you got a berth as supercargo on one of my grandfather's ships for Mark Gilbert. Can't you do it for Harry?"
"But, Kate, that was quite a different thing. Mark's father came to me and asked it as a special favor." His assumed authority at the shipping office rarely extended to the appointing of officers—not when the younger partners objected.
"Well, Harry's father won't come to you, nor will Harry; and it isn't a different thing. It's exactly the same thing so far as you are concerned, and there is a greater reason for Harry, for he is alone in the world and he is not used to hard work of any kind, and it is cruel to make a common sailor of him."
"Why, I thought Temple was fathering him."
"So Uncle George has, and would always look after him, but Harry is too brave and manly to live upon him any longer, now that Uncle George has lost most of his money. Will you see Mr. Pendergast, or shall I go down to the office?"
Prim mused for a moment. "There may not be a vacancy," he ventured, "but I will inquire. The Ranger sails on Friday for the River Plate, and I will have Mr. Pendergast come and see me. Supercargoes are of very little use, my dear, unless they have had some business training, and this young man, of course, has had none at all."
"This young man, indeed!" thought Kate with a sigh, stifling her indignation. "Poor Harry!—no one need treat him any longer with even common courtesy, now that St. George, his last hold, had been swept away."
"I think on the whole I had better attend to it myself," she added with some impatience. "I don't want anything to go wrong about it."
"No, I'll see him, Kate; just leave it all to me."
He had already decided what to do—or what he would try to do—when he first heard the boy wanted to leave the country. What troubled him was what the managing partner of the line might think of the proposition. As long as Harry remained at home and within reach any number of things might happen—even a return of the old love. With the scapegrace half-way around the world some other man might have a chance—Willits, especially, who had proved himself in every way worthy of his daughter, and who would soon be one of the leading lawyers of the State if he kept on.
With the closing of the door upon her father, Kate threw herself upon her lounge. One by one the salient features of her interview with Harry passed in review: his pleading for some word of comfort; some note of forgiveness with which to cheer the hours of his exile.—"You are the last thing I kiss before I close my eyes." Then his open defiance of her expressed wishes when they conflicted with his own set purpose of going away and staying away until he made up his mind to return. While the first brought with it a certain contented satisfaction—something she had expected and was glad of—the last aroused only indignation and revolt. Her brow tightened, and the determination of the old seadog—her grandfather Barkeley—played over her countenance. She no longer, then, filled Harry's life, controlling all his actions; she no longer inspired his hopes. Rather than marry her he would work as a common sailor. Yes—he had said so, and with his head up and his voice ringing brave and clear. She was proud of him for it—she had never been so proud of him—but why no trace of herself in his resolve; except in his allusion to the duel, when he said he would do it again should any one insult her? It was courteous, of course, for him to feel that way, however much she abhorred the system of settling such disputes. But, then, he would do that for any other woman—would, no doubt, for some woman he had not yet seen. In this he was the son of his father and the same Harry—but in everything else he was a changed man—and never more changed than in his attitude toward her.
With these thoughts racking her brain she rose from the lounge and began pacing the floor, peering out between the curtains of her room, her eyes wandering over the park as if she could still see him between the branches. Then her mind cleared and the true situation developed itself:—for months she had hugged to herself the comforting thought that she had only to stretch out her hand and bring him to her feet. He had now looked her full in the face and proclaimed his freedom. It was as if she had caged a bird and found the door open and the prisoner singing in a tree overhead.
That same night she sat by her wood fire in her chamber, her old black mammy—Mammy Henny—bending close, combing out her marvellous hair. She had been studying the coals, watching the little castles pile and fall; the quick smothering of slowly fading sparks under a blanket of gray ashes, and the wavering, flickering light that died on the curling smoke. She had not spoken for a long time, when the old woman roused her.
"Whar was you dis mawnin', honey chile? Mister Willits done wait mo'n ha'f a hour, den he say he come back an' fetch his sorrel horse wid him dis arternoon an' take ye ridin'. But he ain't come—dat is, Ben done tol' me so."
"No, mammy," she answered wearily—"I sent him word not to—I didn't feel like riding to-day."
Over two years have passed away since that mournful night when Harry with his hand in St. George's, his voice choking, had declared his determination to leave him the next day and seek his fortunes across the seas.
It was a cruel blow to Temple, coming as it did on the heels of his own disaster, but when the first shock had passed he could but admire the lad for his pluck and love him the better for his independence.
"All right, my son," he had said, concealing as best he could his intense suffering over the loss of his companion. "I'll try and get along. But remember I am here—and the door is always open. I don't blame you—I would do the same thing were I in your place. And now about Kate—what shall I say to her?"
"Nothing. I said it all this morning. She doesn't love me any more—she would have passed me by without speaking had I not called to her. She'll be married to Willits before I come back—if I ever do come back. But leaving Kate is easier than leaving you. You have stuck to me all the way through, and Kate—well—perhaps she hasn't understood—perhaps her father has been talking to her—I don't know. Anyhow, it's all over. If I had had any doubts about it before, this morning's talk settled it. The sea is the best place for me. I can support myself anyway for a while until I can help you."
Yes! the boy was right, St. George had said to himself. It was all over between them. Kate's reason had triumphed at last. She, perhaps, was not to blame. Her experiences had been trying and she was still confronted by influences bitterly opposed to Harry, and largely in favor of Willits, for, weak specimen as Prim was, he was still her father, and in so important a step as her marriage, must naturally exercise authority. As for his own influence, that, he realized, had come to an end at their last interview: the whole thing, he must admit, was disappointing—cruelly so—the keenest disappointment of his life.
Many a night since he bid Harry good-by had he sat alone by that same fire, his dogs his only companions, the boy's words ringing in his ears: "Leaving Kate is easier than leaving you!" Had it been the other way and he the exile, it would have been nearer the truth, he often thought, for nothing in his whole life had left so great a void in his heart as the loss of the boy he loved. Not that he was ever completely disheartened; that was not his nature; there was always daylight ahead—the day when Harry would come back and their old life begin again. With this in store for him he had led his life as best he could, visiting his friends in the country, entertaining in a simple, inexpensive way, hunting at Wesley, where he and Peggy Coston would exchange confidences and funny stories; dining out; fishing in the early spring; getting poorer and poorer in pocket, and yet never complaining, his philosophy being that it would be brighter in the morning, and it always was—to him.
And yet if the truth be told his own situation had not improved—in fact, it had grown steadily worse. Only one payment of interest had been made on the mortgage and the owner was already threatening foreclosure proceedings. Pawson's intervention alone had staved off the fatal climax by promising the holder to keep the loan alive by the collection of some old debts—borrowed money and the like—due St. George for years and which his good nature had allowed to run on indefinitely until some of them were practically outlawed. Indeed it was only through resources like this, in all of which Pawson helped, and with the collecting of some small ground rents, that kept Todd and Jemima in their places and the larder comfortably filled. As to the bank—there was still hope that some small percentage would be paid the depositors, it being the general opinion that the directors were personally liable because of the irregularities which the smash had uncovered—but this would take months, if not years, to work out.
His greatest comfort was in the wanderer's letters. These he would watch for with the eagerness of a girl hungry for news of her distant lover. For the first few months these came by every possible mail, most of them directed to himself; others to his mother, Mrs. Rutter driving in from Moorlands to compare notes with St. George. Then, as the boy made his way further into the interior the intervals were greater—sometimes a month passed without news of him.
"We are short-handed," he wrote St. George, "owing to fever on the voyage out on the Ranger, and though I am supercargo and sit at the captain's table, I have to turn to and work like any of the others—fine exercise, but my hands are cracked and blistered and full of tar. I'll have to wear gloves the next time I dine with you."
Not a word of this to his mother—no such hardships for her tender ears:
"Tell me about Kate, mother"—this from Rio—"how she looks; what she says; does she ever mention my name? My love to Alec. Is Matthew still caring for Spitfire, or has my father sold her?" Then followed the line: "Give my father my respectful regards; I would send my love, but he no longer cares for it."
The dear lady did not deliver the message. Indeed Harry's departure had so widened the breach between the colonel and herself that they practically occupied different parts of the house as far removed from each other as possible. She had denounced him first to his face for the boy's self-imposed exile, and again behind his back to her intimates. Nor did her resolve waver even when the colonel was thrown from his horse and so badly hurt that his eyesight was greatly impaired. "It is a judgment on you," she had said, drawing her frail body up to its full height. "You will now learn what other people suffer," and would have kept on upstairs to her own room had not her heart softened at his helplessness—a new role for the colonel.
He had made no answer at the time: he never answered her back. She was too frail to be angry with, and then she was right about his being the cause of her suffering—the first cause of it, at least. He had not yet arrived at the point where he censured himself for all that had happened. In fact since Harry's sudden exit, made without a word to anybody at Moorlands except his mother and Alec, who went to town on a hurry message,—a slight which cut him to the quick—he had steadily laid the blame on everybody else connected with the affair;—generally on St. George for his interference in his peace-making programme at the club and his refusal, when ruined financially, to send the boy back to him in an humble and contrite spirit. Neither had he recovered from the wrath he had felt when, having sent John Gorsuch to ascertain from St. George the amount of money he had paid out for his son, Temple had politely sent Gorsuch, in charge of Todd, downstairs to Pawson, who in turn, after listening to Todd's whispered message, had with equal politeness shown Gorsuch the door, the colonel's signed check—the amount unfilled—still in Gorsuch's pocket.
It was only when the Lord of Moorlands went into town to spend an hour or so with Kate—and he was a frequent visitor prior to his accident—that his old manner returned. He loved the girl dearly and was never tired of talking to her. She was the only woman who would listen when he poured out his heart.
And Kate always welcomed him gladly. She liked strong, decided men even if they sometimes erred in their conclusions. Her grandfather, old Captain Barkeley, had had the same masterfulness. He had been in absolute command in his earlier years, and he had kept in command all his life. His word was law, and he was generally right. She was twelve years old when he died, and had, therefore, ample opportunity to know. It was her grandfather's strong personality, in fact, which had given her so clear an idea of her father's many weaknesses. Rutter, she felt, was a combination of both Barkeley and Prim—forceful and yet warped by prejudices; dominating yet intolerant; able to do big things and contented with little ones. It was forcefulness, despite his many shortcomings, which most appealed to her.
Moreover, she saw much of Harry in him. It was that which made her so willing to listen—she continually comparing the father to the son. These comparisons were invariably made in a circle, beginning at Rutter's brown eyes, taking in his features and peculiarities—many of them reproduced in his son's—such as the firm set of the lips and the square line of the chin—and ending, quite naturally, with the brown orbs again. While Harry's matched the color and shape, and often the fierce glare of the father's, they could also, she said to herself, shine with the soft light of the mother's. It was from the mother's side, then, that there came the willingness to yield to whatever tempted him—it may be to drink—to a false sense of honor—to herself: Harry being her slave instead of her master. And the other men around her—so far as yielding was concerned (here her brow would tighten and her lips straighten)—were no better. Even Uncle George must take her own "No" for an answer and believe it when she meant quite a different thing. And once more would her soul break out in revolt over the web in which she had become entangled, and once more would she cry herself to sleep.
Nobody but her old black mammy knew how tragic had been her sufferings, how many bitter hours she had passed, nor how many bitter tears she had shed. Yet even old Henny could not comfort her, nor was there any one else to whom the girl could pour out her heart. She had, it is true, kept up her intimacy with her Uncle George—hardly a week passed that she was not a visitor at his house or he at hers—but they had long since refrained from discussing Harry. Not because he did not want to talk about him, but because she would not let him—Of course not!
To Richard Horn, however, strange to say, she often turned—not so much for confidences as for a broader understanding of life. The thoughtful inventor was not so hedged about by social restrictions, and would break out in spontaneous admiration of Harry, saying with a decisive nod of his head, "A fine, splendid young fellow, my dear Kate; I recognized it first at St. George's dinner to Mr. Poe, and if I may say so, a much-abused young man whose only sin is that he, like many another about us, has been born under a waning star in a sky full of murky clouds; one that the fresh breeze of a new civilization will some day clear away"—a deduction which Kate could not quite grasp, but which comforted her greatly.
It delighted her, too, to hear him talk of the notable occurrences taking place about them. "You are wonderfully intelligent, my dear," he had said to her on one occasion, "and should miss nothing of the developments that are going on about us;" and in proof of it had the very next day taken her to an exhibition of Mr. Morse's new telegraph, given at the Institute, at which two operators, each with an instrument, the men in sight of each other, but too far apart to be in collusion, were sending and answering the messages through wires stretched around the hall. She, at Richard's suggestion, had written a message herself, which she handed to the nearest operator who had ticked it to his fellow, and who at once read it to the audience. Even then many doubting Thomases had cried out "Collusion," until Richard, rising in his seat, had not only endorsed the truth of the reading, but explained the invention, his statement silencing all opposition because of his well-known standing and knowledge of kindred sciences.
Richard's readings also, from which Kate was never absent, and which had now been resumed at his own house, greatly interested her. These of late had been devoted to many of Poe's earlier poems and later tales, for despite the scene at St. George's the inventor had never ceased to believe in the poet.
And so with these occupations, studies, investigations, and social pleasures—she never missing a ball or party (Willits always managing to be with her)—and the spending of the summer months at the Red Sulphur, where she had been pursued by half a dozen admirers—one a titled Englishman—had the days and hours of the years of Harry's absence passed slowly away.
At the end of the second winter a slight change occurred in the monotony of her life. Her constant, unwavering devotee, Langdon Willits, fell ill and had to be taken to the Eastern Shore, where the same old lot of bandages—that is of the same pattern—and the same loyal sister were impressed into service to nurse him back to health. The furrow Harry's bullet had ploughed in his head still troubled him at times, especially in the hot weather, and a horseback ride beside Kate one August day, with the heat in the nineties, had started the subsoil of his cranium to aching with such vehemence that Teackle had promptly packed it in ice and ten days later its owner in blankets and had put them both aboard the bay boat bound for the Eastern Shore.
Whether this new irritant—and everything seemed to annoy her now—had begun to tell on our beautiful Kate, or whether the gayety of the winter both at home and in Washington, where she had spent some weeks during the season, had tired her out, certain it was that when the spring came the life had gone out of her step and the color from her cheeks. Mammy Henny had noticed it and had coddled her the more, crooning and petting her; and her father had noticed it and had begun to be anxious, and at last St. George had stalked in and cried out in that breezy, joyous way of his that nothing daunted:
"Here, you sweetheart!—what have you been doing to your cheeks—all the roses out of them and pale as two lilies—and you never out of bed until twelve o'clock in the day and looking then as if you hadn't had a wink of sleep all night. Not a word out of you, Seymour, until I've finished. I'm going to take Kate down to Tom Coston's and keep her there till she gets well. Too many stuffy balls—too many late suppers—oyster roasts and high doings. None of that at Tom's. Up at six and to bed at ten. I've just had a letter from him and dear Peggy is crazy to have us come. Take your mare along, Kate, and you won't lack fresh air. Now what do you say, Seymour?"
Of course the Honorable Prim bobbed his honorable head and said he had been worried himself over Kate's loss of appetite, and that if Temple would, etc., etc.—he would—etc., etc.—and so Mammy Henny began to get pink and white and other fluffy things together, and Ben, with Todd to help, led Joan, her own beloved saddle horse, down to the dock and saw that she was safely lodged between decks, and then up came a coach (all this was two days later) and my lady drove off with two hair trunks in front and a French bonnet box behind—St. George beside her, and fat Mammy Henny in white kerchief and red bandanna, opposite, and Todd in one of St. George's old shooting-jackets on the box next the driver, with his feet on two of the dogs, the others having been loaned to a friend.
And it was a great leave-taking when the party reached the wharf. Not only were three or four of her girl friends present, but a dozen or more of the old merchants forsook their desks, when the coach unlimbered, most of them crossing the cobbles—some bare-headed, and all of them in high stocks and swallow-tail coats—pens behind their ears, spectacles on their pates—to bid the young princess good-by.
For Kate was still "our Kate," in the widest and broadest sense and the pride and joy of all who knew her, and many who didn't. That she had a dozen beaux—and that some of them had tried to bore holes in each other for love of her; and that one of them was now a wanderer and another in a state of collapse, if report were true—was quite as it should be. Men had died for women a hundred times less worthy and a thousand times less beautiful, and men would die of love again. When at last she made up her mind she would choose the right man, and in the meantime God bless her for just being alive.
And she was never more alive or more charming than to-day.
"Oh, how delightful of you, Mr. Murdoch, and you too, Mr. Bowdoin—and Max—and all of you, to cross those wretched stones. No, wait, I'll come to you—" she had called out, when with a stamp of her little feet she had shaken the pleats from her skirt—adding when they had all kissed her hand in turn—"Yes—I am going down to be dairy-maid at Peggy Coston's," at which the bald-headed old fellows, with their hands upraised in protest at so great a sacrilege, bowed to the ground, their fingers on their ruffled shirt-fronts, and the younger ones lifted their furry hats and kept them in the air until she had crossed the gang-plank and Todd and Mammy Henny, and Ben who had come to help, lost their several breaths getting the impatient dogs and baggage aboard—and so she sailed away with Uncle George as chaperon, the whole party throwing kisses back and forth.
Their reception at Wesley, the ancestral home of the Costons, although it was late at night when they arrived, was none the less joyous. Peggy was the first to welcome the invalid, and Tom was not far behind.
"Give her to me, St. George," bubbled Peggy, enfolding the girl in her arms. "You blessed thing! Oh, how glad I am to get hold of you! They told me you were ill, child—not a word of truth in it! No, Mr. Coston, you sha'n't even have one of her little fingers until I get through loving her. What's your mammy's name—Henny? Well, Henny, you take Miss Kate's things into her room—that one at the top of the stairs."
And then the Honorable Tom Coston said he'd be doggoned if he was going to wait another minute, and he didn't—for Kate kissed him on both cheeks and gave him her father's message, congratulating him on his appointment as judge, and thanking him in advance for all the kindness he would show his daughter.
But it was not until she awoke next morning and looked out between the posts of her high bedstead through the small, wide-open window overlooking the bay that her heart gave the first bound of real gladness. She loved the sky and the dash of salt air, laden now with the perfume of budding fruit trees, that blew straight in from the sea. She loved, too, the stir and sough of the creaking pines and the cheery calls from the barnyard. Here she could get her mind settled; here, too, she could forget all the little things that had bothered her—there would be no more invitations to accept or decline; no promises she must keep. She and her Uncle George could have one long holiday—she needed it and, goodness knows, he needed it after all his troubles—and they would begin as soon as breakfast was over. And they did—the dogs plunging ahead, the two hand in hand, St. George, guide and philosopher, pointing out this and that characteristic feature of the once famous estate and dilating on its past glory.
"Even in my father's day," he continued, his face lighting up, "it was one of the great show places of the county. The stables held twenty horses and a coach, besides no end of gigs and carryalls. This broad road on which we walk was lined with flower-beds and shaded by live-oaks. Over there, near that little grove, were three great barns and lesser out-buildings, besides the negro quarters, smoke-houses, and hay-ricks. Really a wonderful place in its day, Kate."
Then he went on to tell of how the verandas were shaded with honeysuckles, and the halls, drawing-rooms, and dining-room crowded with furniture; how there were yellow damask curtains, and screens, and hair-cloth sofas and a harmonicon of musical glasses which was played by wetting one's fingers in a bowl of water and passing them over the rims—he had played on it himself when a boy; and slaves galore—nearly one hundred of them, not to mention a thousand acres of tillable land to plough and harrow, as well as sheep, oxen, pigs, chickens, ducks—everything that a man of wealth and position might have had in the old days, and about every one of which St. George had a memory.
Then when Tom's father, who was the sole heir, took charge (here his voice dropped to a whisper) dissolution proceedings set in—and Tom finished them! and St. George sighed heavily as he pointed out the changes:—the quarters in ruins, the stables falling to pieces, the gates tied up with strings or swinging loose; and the flocks, herds, and live-stock things of the past. Nor had a negro been left—none Tom really owned: one by one they had been sold or hired out, or gone off nobody knew where, he being too lazy, or too indifferent, or too good-natured, to hunt them up. The house, as Kate had seen, was equally neglected. Even what remained of the old furniture was on its last legs—the curtains patched, or in shreds—the carpets worn into holes.
Kate listened eagerly, but she did not sigh. It was all charming to her in the soft spring sunshine, the air a perfume, the birds singing, the blossoms bursting, the peach-trees anthems of praise—and best of all her dear Uncle George strolling at her side. And then everything was so clean and fresh and sweet in every nook and corner of the tumble-down house. Peggy, as she soon discovered, looked after that—in fact Peggy looked after everything that required looking after—and everything did—including the judge. Mr. Coston was tired, Peggy would say, or Mr. Coston had not been very well, so she just did it herself instead of bothering him. Since his promotion it was generally "the judge" who was too tired, being absorbed in his court duties, etc., etc. But it always came with a laugh, and it was always genuine, for to wait upon him and look after him and minister to him was her highest happiness.
Good for nothing as he would have been to some women—unpractical, lazy—a man few sensible wives would have put up with—Peggy adored him; and so did his children adore him, and so, for that matter, did his neighbors, many of whom, although they ridiculed him behind his back, could never escape the charm of his personality whenever they sat beside his rocking-chair.
This chair—the only comfortable chair in the house, by the way—had, in his less distinguished days, been his throne. In it he would sit all day long, cutting and whittling, filing and polishing curious trinkets of tortoise-shell for watch-guards and tiny baskets made of cherry-stones, cunningly wrought and finished. He was an expert, too, in corn-cob pipes, which he carved for all his friends; and pin-wheels for everybody's children. When it came, however, to such matters as a missing hinge to the front door, a brick under a tottering chimney, the straightening of a falling fence, the repairing of a loose lock on the smoke-house—or even the care of the family carryall, which despite its great age and infirmities was often left out in the rain to rust and ruin—these things must, of course, wait until the overworked father of the house found time to look after them.
The children loved him the most. They asked for nothing better than to fix him in his big chair by the fender, throw upon the fire a basket of bark chips from the wood-yard, and enough pitch-pine knots to wake them up, and after filling his pipe and lighting it, snuggle close—every bend and curve of the wide-armed splint-bottomed comfort packed full, all waiting to hear him tell one of his stories. Sometimes it was the tale of the fish and the cuff-button—how he once dropped his sleeve-link overboard, and how a year afterward he was in a shallop on the Broadwater fishing for rockflsh when he caught a splendid fellow, which when Aunt Patience cleaned—(here his voice would drop to a whisper)—"What do you think!—why out popped the sleeve-link that was in his cuff this minute!" And for the hundredth time the bit of gold would be examined by each child in turn. Or it was the witch story—about the Yahoo wild man with great horns and a lashing tail, who lived in the swamp and went howling and prowling about for plunder and prey. (This was always given with a low, prolonged growl, like a dog in pain—all the children shuddering.) And then followed the oft-told tale of how this same terrible Yahoo once came up with Hagar, who was riding a witch pony to get to the witches' dance in the cane-brake, and how he made off with her to the swamp, where she had had to cook for him—ever—ever—ever since. (Long-drawn breath, showing that all was over for that day at least.)
Todd got the true inwardness of the situation before he had been many days at Wesley: for the scene with the children was often repeated when court was not in session.
"Fo' Gawd, Marse George, hab you had time to watch dat gemman, de jedge? Dey do say he's sumpin' great, but I tell ye he's dat lazy a fly stuck in 'lasses 'd pass him on de road."
St. George laughed heartily in reply, but he did not reprimand him.
"What makes you think so, Todd?"
"Can't help thinkin' so. I wuz standin' by de po'ch yisterday holdin' Miss Kate's mare, when I yere de mistis ask de jedge ter go out an' git 'er some kindlin' f'om de wood-pile. He sot a-rockin' hisse'f in dat big cheer ob his'n an' I yered him say—'Yes, in a minute,' but he didn't move. Den she holler ag'in at him an' still he rock hisse'f, sayin' he's comin'. Den, fust thing I knowed out she come to de woodpile an' git it herse'f, an' den when she pass him wid 'er arms full o' wood he look up an' say—'Peggy, come yere an' kiss me—I dunno what we'd do widout ye—you'se de Lawd's anointed, sho'.'"
Kate got no end of amusement out of him, and would often walk with him to court that she might listen to his drolleries—especially his queer views of life—the simplest and most unaffected to which she had ever bent her ears. Now and then, as time went on, despite her good-natured toleration of his want of independence—he being always dominated by his wife—she chanced, to her great surprise, upon some nuggets of hard common-sense of so high an assay that they might really be graded as wisdom—his analysis of men and women being particularly surprising. Those little twinkling, and sometimes sleepy, eyes of his, now that she began to study him the closer, reminded her of the unreadable eyes of an elephant she had once seen—eyes that presaged nothing but inertia, until whack went the trunk and over toppled the boy who had teased him.
And with this new discovery there developed at last a certain respect for the lazy, good-natured, droll old man. Opinions which she had heretofore laughed at suddenly became of value; criticisms which she had passed over in silence seemed worthy of further consideration.
Peggy, however, fitted into all the tender places of her heart. She had never known her own mother; all she remembered was a face bending close and a soft hand that tucked in the coverlet one night when she couldn't sleep. The memory had haunted her from the days of her childhood—clear and distinct, with every detail in place. Had there been light enough in her mother's bed-room, she was sure she could have added the dear face itself to her recollection. Plump, full-bosomed, rosy-cheeked Peggy (fifteen years younger than Tom) supplied the touch and voice, and all the tenderness as well, that these sad memories recalled, and all that the motherless girl had yearned for.
And the simple, uneventful life—one without restraints of any kind, greatly satisfied her: so different from her own at home with Prim as Chief Regulator. Everybody, to her delight, did as they pleased, each one following the bent of his or her inclination. St. George was out at daybreak in the duck-blinds, or, breakfast over, roaming the fields with his dogs, Todd a close attendant. The judge would stroll over to court an hour or more late, only to find an equally careless and contented group blocking up the door—"po' white trash" most of them, each one with a grievance. Whenever St. George accompanied him, and he often did, his Honor would spend even less time on the bench—cutting short both ends of the session, Temple laughing himself sore over the judge's decisions.
"And he stole yo' shoat and never paid for him?" he heard his honor say one day in a hog case, where two farmers who had been waiting hours for Tom's coming were plaintiff and defendant. "How did you know it was yo' shoat—did you mark him?"
"Tie a tag around his neck?"
"Well, you just keep yo' hogs inside yo' lot. Too many loose hogs runnin' 'round. Case is dismissed and co't is adjourned for the day," which, while very poor law, was good common-sense, stray hogs on the public highway having become a nuisance.
With these kindly examples before her, Kate soon fell into the ways of the house. If she did not wish to get up she lay abed and Peggy brought her breakfast with her own hands. If, when she did leave her bed, she went about in pussy-slippers and a loose gown of lace and frills without her stays, Peggy's only protest was against her wearing anything else—so adorable was she. When this happy, dreamy indolence began to pall upon her—and she could not stand it for long—she would be up at sunrise helping Peggy wash and dress her frolicsome children or get them off to school, and this done, would assist in the housework—even rolling the pastry with her own delicate palms, or sitting beside the bubbling, spontaneous woman, needle in hand, aiding with the family mending—while Peggy, glad of the companionship, would sit with ears open, her mind alert, probing—probing—trying to read the heart of the girl whom she loved the better every day. And so there had crept into Kate's heart a new peace that was as fresh sap to a dying plant, bringing the blossoms to her cheeks and the spring of wind-blown branches to her step.
Then one fine morning, to the astonishment of every one, and greatly to Todd's disgust, no less a person than Mr. Langdon Willits of "Oak Hill" (distant three miles away) dismounted at Coston's front porch, and throwing the reins to the waiting darky, stretched his convalescent, but still shaky, legs in the direction of the living-room, there to await the arrival of "Miss Seymour of Kennedy Square," who, so he informed Todd, "expected him."
Todd scraped a foot respectfully in answer, touched his cocoanut of a head with his monkey claw of a finger, waited until the broad back of the red-headed gentleman had been swallowed up by the open door, and then indulged in this soliloquy:
"Funny de way dem bullets hab o' missin' folks. Des a leetle furder down an' dere wouldn't 'a' been none o' dis yere foolishness. Pity Marse Harry hadn't practised some mo'. Ef he had ter do it ag'in I reckon he'd pink him so he neber be cavortin' 'roun' like he is now."
Willits's sudden appearance filled St. George with ill-concealed anxiety. He did not believe in this parade of invalidism, nor did he like Kate's encouraging smile when she met him—and there was no question that she did smile—and, more portentous still, that she enjoyed it. Other things, too, she grew to enjoy, especially the long rides in the woods and over to the broad water. For Willits's health after a few days of the sunshine of Kate's companionship had undergone so renovating a process that the sorrel horse now arrived at the porch almost every day, whereupon Kate's Joan would be led out, and the smiled-upon gentleman in English riding-boots and brown velvet jacket and our gracious lady in Lincoln green habit with wide hat and sweeping plume would mount their steeds and be lost among the pines.
Indeed, to be exact, half of Kate's time was now spent in the saddle, Willits riding beside her. And with each day's outing a new and, to St. George, a more disturbing intimacy appeared to be growing between them. Now it was Willits's sister who had to be considered and especially invited to Wesley—a thin wisp of a woman with tortoise-shell sidecombs and bunches of dry curls, who always dressed in shiny black silk and whose only ornament was her mother's hair set in a breastpin; or it was his father by whom she must sit when he came over in his gig—a bluff, hearty man who generally wore a red waistcoat with big bone buttons and high boots with tassels in front.
This last confidential relation, when the manners and bearing of the elder man came under his notice, seemed to St. George the most unaccountable of all. Departures from the established code always jarred upon him, and the gentleman in the red waistcoat and tasselled boots often wandered so far afield that he invariably set St. George's teeth on edge. Although he had never met Kate before, he called her by her first name after the first ten minutes of their acquaintance—his son, he explained, having done nothing but sound her praises for the past two years, an excuse which carried no weight in gentleman George's mind because of its additional familiarity. He had never dared, he knew, to extend that familiarity to Peggy—it had always been "Mrs. Coston" to her and it had always been "Mr. Coston" to Tom, and it was now "your Honor" or "judge" to the dispenser of justice. For though the owner of Oak Hill lived within a few miles of the tumble-down remnant that sheltered the Costons; and though he had fifty servants to their one, or half a one—and broad acres in proportion, to say nothing of flocks and herds—St. George had always been aware that he seldom crossed their porch steps or they his. That little affair of some fifty or more years ago was still remembered, and the children of people who did that sort of thing must, of course, pay the penalty. Even Peggy never failed to draw the line. "Very nice people, my dear," he had heard her say to Kate one day when the subject of the younger man's family had come up. "Mr. Willits senior is a fine, open-hearted man, and does a great deal of good in the county with his money—quite a politician, and they do say has a fair chance of some time being governor of the State. But very few of us about here would want to marry into the family, all the same. Oh no, my dear Kate, of course there was nothing against his grandmother. She was a very nice woman, I believe, and I've often heard my own mother speak of her. Her father came from Albemarle Sound, if I am right, and was old John Willits's overseer. The girl was his daughter."
Kate had made no answer. Who Langdon Willits's grandmother was, or whether he had any grandmother at all, did not concern her in the least. She rather admired the young Albemarle Sound girl for walking boldly into the Willits family—low born as she was—and making them respect her.
But none of Peggy's outspoken warnings nor any of St. George's silent acceptances of the several situations—always a mark of his disapproval—checked the game of love-making which was going on—the give-and-take stage of it, with the odds varying with each new shifting of the cards, both Peggy and St. George growing the more nervous.
"She's going to accept him, St. George," Peggy had said to him one morning as he stood behind her chair while she was shelling the peas for dinner. "I didn't think so when he first came, but I believe it now. I have said all I could to her. She has cuddled up in my arms and cried herself sick over it, but she won't hold out much longer. Young Rutter left her heart all torn and bleeding and this man has bound up the sore places. She will never love anybody that way again—and may be it is just as well. He'd have kept her guessing all her life as to what he'd do next. I wish Willits's blood was better, for she's a dear, sweet child and proud as she can be, only she's proud over different things from what I would be. But you can make up your mind to it—she'll keep him dangling for a while yet, as she did last summer at the Red Sulphur, but she'll be his wife in a year or less—you mark my words. You haven't yet heard from the first one, have you?—as to when he's coming home?"
St. George hadn't heard—he sighed in return—a habit of his lately: No, not for two months or more—not since the letter in which Harry said he had left the ship and had gone up into the interior. He had, he told her, mentioned the boy's silence to Kate in a casual way, watching the effect the news produced upon her—but after the remark that the mails were always irregular from those far-away countries, she had turned the conversation into other channels, she having caught sight of Willits, who had just dismounted from his horse.
As to St. George's own position in the affair he felt that his hands were still so firmly tied that he could do nothing one way or the other. His personal intercourse with Willits had been such as he would always have with a man with whom he was on speaking terms, but it never passed that border. He was courteous, careful of his speech, and mindful of the young man's devotion to Kate, whose guardian for the time being he was, but he neither encouraged nor thwarted his suit. Kate was of age and was fully competent to decide for herself—extremely competent, for that matter.
How little this clear reader of women's hearts—and scores had been spread out before him—knew of Kate's, no one but the girl herself could have told. That she was adrift on an open sea without a rudder, and that she had already begun to lose confidence both in her seamanship and in her compass, was becoming more and more apparent to her every day she lived. All she knew positively was that she had been sailing before the wind for some weeks past with everything flying loose, and that the time had now come for her either to "go about" or keep on her course.
Her suitor's family she had carefully considered. She had also studied his environment and the impression he made upon those who had known him longest:—she must now focus her mental lenses on the man himself. He had, she knew, graduated with honors, being the valedictorian of his class; had risen rapidly in his profession, and, from what her father said, would soon reach a high place among his brother lawyers. There was even talk of sending him to the legislature, where her own father, the Honorable Prim, had achieved his title. She wished, of course, that Mr. Willits's hair was not quite so red; she wished, too, that the knuckles on his hands were not so large and bony—and that he was not always at her beck and call; but these, she was forced to admit, were trifles in the make-up of a fine man. There was, however, a sane mind under the carrot-colored hair and a warm palm inside the knotted knuckles, and that was infinitely more important than little physical peculiarities which one would forget as life went on. As to his periods of ill health, these she herself could have prevented had she told him the whole truth that night on the stairs, or the day before when she had parried his direct proposal of marriage—a piece of stupidity for which she never failed to blame herself.
His future conduct did not trouble her in the least. She had long since become convinced that Willits would never again become intemperate. He had kept his promise, and this meant more to her than his having given way to past temptations. The lesson he had learned at the ball had had, too, its full effect. One he had never forgotten. Over and over again he had apologized to her for his brutal insolence in laying his profane hands on her dancing-card and tearing it to bits before her eyes. He had, moreover, deeply regretted the duel and had sworn to her on his honor as a gentleman that he would never fight another.
Each time she had listened quietly and had told him how much she was pleased and how grateful she was for his confidence and how such fine resolutions redounded to his credit, and yet in thinking it over the next day she could not help comparing his meek outbursts of sorrow with Harry's blunt statement made to her the last time she saw him in the park, when, instead of expressing any regret for having shot Willits, he had boldly declared that he would do it again if any such insult were repeated. And strange to say—and this she could not understand in herself—in all such comparisons Harry came out best.
But:—and here she had to hold on to her rudder with all her might—she had already made one mistake, tumbling head over heels in love with a young fellow who had mortified her before the world when their engagement was less than a few months old, making her name and affections a byword, and she could not and would not repeat the blunder. This had shattered her customary self-reliance, leaving her wellnigh helpless. Perhaps after all—an unheard-of thing in her experience—she had better seek advice of some older and wiser pilot. Two heads, or even three—(here her canny Scotch blood asserted itself)—were better than one in deciding so important a matter as the choosing of a mate for life. And yet—now she came to think it over—it was not so much a question of heads as it was a question of shoulders on which the heads rested. To turn to St. George, or to any member of the Willits kin, was impossible. Peggy's views she understood. Counsel, however, she must have, and at once.
Suddenly an inspiration thrilled her like an electric shock—one that sent the blood tingling to the very roots of her hair. Why had she not thought of it before! And it must be in the most casual way—quite as a matter of general conversation, he doing all the talking and she doing all the listening, for on no account must he suspect her purpose.
Within the hour she had tied the ribbons of her wide leghorn hat under her dimpled chin, picked up her shawl, and started off alone, following the lane to the main road. If the judge, by any chance, had adjourned court he would come straight home and she would meet him on the way. If he was still engaged in the dispensation of justice, she would wait for him outside.
She had judged wisely. Indeed she might have waited for days for some such moment and not found so favorable an opportunity. His Honor had already left the bench and was then slowly making his way toward where she stood, hugging the sidewalk trees the better to shade him from the increasing heat. As the day had promised to be an unusually warm one, he had attired himself in a full suit of yellow nankeen, with palm-leaf fan and wide straw hat—a combination which so matched the color and texture of his placid, kindly face that Kate could hardly keep from laughing outright. Instead she quickened her steps until she stood beside him, her lovely, fresh color heightened by her walk, her eyes sparkling, her face wreathed in smiles.
"You are lookin' mighty cute, my Lady Kate, in yo' Paisley shawl and sarsanet pelisse," he called out in his hearty, cheery way. "Has Peggy seen 'em? I've been tryin' to get her some just like 'em, only my co't duties are so pressin'. Goodness, gracious me!—but it's gettin' hot!" Here he stopped and mopped his face, then his eyes fell upon her again: "Bless my soul, child!—you do look pretty this mornin'—jest like yo' mother! Where did you get all those pink and white apple-blossoms in yo' cheeks?"
"Do you remember her, Mr. Coston?" she rejoined, ignoring his compliment.
"Do I remember her! The belle of fo' counties, my dear—eve'ybody at her feet; five or six gentlemen co'tin' her at once; old Captain Barkeley, cross as a bear—wouldn't let her marry this one or that one—kep' her guessin' night and day, till one of 'em blew his brains out, and then she fainted dead away. Pretty soon yo' father co'ted her, and bein' Scotch, like the old captain and sober as an owl and about as cunnin', it wasn't long befo' everything was settled. Very nice man, yo' father—got to have things mighty partic'lar; we young bucks used to say he slept in a bag of lavender and powdered his cheeks every mornin' to make him look fresh, while most of us were soakin' wet in the duck-blinds—but that was only our joke. That's long befo' you were born, child. But yo' mother didn't live long—they said her heart was broken 'bout the other fellow, but there wasn't a word of truth in that foolishness—couldn't be. I used to see her and yo' father together long after that, and she was mighty good to him, and he was to her. Yes—all comes back to me. Stand still, child, and let me look at you—yes—you're plumper than yo' mother and a good deal rosier, and you don't look so slender and white as she did, like one of those pale Indian pipes she used to hunt in the woods. It's the Seymour in you that's done that, I reckon."
Kate walked on in silence. It was not the first time that some of her mother's old friends had told her practically the same story—not so clearly, perhaps, because few had the simple, outspoken candor of the old fellow, but enough to let her know that her father was not her mother's first love.
"Don't be in a hurry, child, and don't let anybody choose for you," he ran on. "Peggy and I didn't make any mistakes—and don't you. Now this young son of Parker Willits's"—here his wrinkled face tightened up into a pucker as if he had just bitten into an unripe persimmon—"good enough young man, may be; goin' to be something great, I reckon—in Mr. Taney's office, I hear, or will be next winter. I 'spect he'll keep out of jail—most Willitses do—but keep an eye on him and watch him, and watch yo'self too. That's more important still. The cemetery is a long ways off when you marry the wrong man, child. And that other fellow that Peggy tells me has been co'tin' you—Talbot Rutter's boy—he's a wild one, isn't he?—drunk half the time and fightin' everybody who don't agree with him. Come pretty nigh endin' young Willits, so they say. Now I hear he's run away to sea and left all his debts behind. Talbot turned him neck and heels out of doors when he found it out, so they tell me—and served the scapegrace right. Don't be in a hurry, child. Right man will come bime-by. Just the same with Peggy till I come along—there she is now, bless her sweet heart! Peggy, you darlin'—I got so lonely for you I just had to 'journ co't. I've been telling Lady Kate that she mustn't be in a hurry to get married till she finds somebody that will make her as happy as you and me." Here the judge slipped his arm around Peggy's capacious waist and the two crossed the pasture as the nearest way to the house.
Kate kept on her way alone.
Her only reply to the garrulous judge had been one of her rippling laughs, but it was the laughter of bubbles with the sediment lying deep in the bottom of the glass.
But all outings must come to an end. And so when the marsh grass on the lowlands lay in serried waves of dappled satin, and the corn on the uplands was waist high and the roses a mob of beauty, Kate threw her arms around Peggy and kissed her over and over again, her whole heart flowing through her lips; and then the judge got his good-by on his wrinkled cheek, and the children on any clean spot which she found on their molasses-covered faces; and then the cavalcade took up its line of march for the boat-landing, Willits going as far as the wharf, where he and Kate had a long talk in low tones, in which he seemed to be doing all the talking and she all the listening—"But nuthin' mo'n jes' a han'shake" (so Todd told St. George), "he lookin' like he wanter eat her up an' she kinder sayin' dat de cake ain't brown 'nough yit fur tastin'—but one thing I know fo' sho'—an' dat is she didn't let 'im kiss 'er. I wuz leadin' his horse pas' whar dey wuz standin', an' de sorrel varmint got cuttin' up an' I kep' him prancin' till Mister Willits couldn't stay wid her no longer. Drat dat red-haided—"
"Stop, Todd—be careful—you mustn't speak that way of Mr. Willits."
"Well, Marse George, I won't—but I ain't neber like him f'om de fust. He ain't quality an' he neber kin be. How Miss Kate don' stan' him is mo'n I kin tell."
Kate drove up to her father's house in state, with Ben as special envoy to see that she and her belongings were properly cared for. St. George with Todd and the four dogs—six in all—arrived, despite Kate's protestations, on foot.
Pawson met him at the door. He had given up his boarding-house and had transferred his traps and parcels to the floor above—into Harry's old room, really—in order that the additional rent—(he had now taken entire charge of Temple's finances)—might help in the payment of the interest on the mortgage. He had thought this all out while St. George was at Wesley and had moved in without notifying him, that being the best way to solve the problem—St. George still retaining his bedroom and dining-room and the use of the front door. Jemima, too, had gone. She wanted, so she had told her master the day he left with Kate, to take a holiday and visit some of her people who lived down by the Marsh Market in an old rookery near the Falls, and would come back when he sent for her; but Todd had settled all that the morning of his arrival, the moment he caught sight of her black face.
"Ain't no use yo' comin' back," the darky blurted out. "I'm gwineter do de cookin' and de chamber-wo'k. Dere ain't 'nough to eat fo' mo'n two. When dem white-livered, no-count, onery gemmens dat stole Marse George's money git in de chain-gang, whar dey b'longs, den may be we'll hab sumpin' to go to market on, but dat ain't yit; an' don't ye tell Marse George I tol' yer or I'll ha'nt ye like dat witch I done heared 'bout down to Wesley—ha'nt ye so ye'll think de debble's got ye." To his master, his only explanation was that Jemima had gone to look after her sister, who had been taken "wid a mis'ry in her back."
If St. George knew anything of the common talk going on around him no one was ever the wiser. He continued the even tenor of his life, visiting and receiving his friends, entertaining his friends in a simple and inexpensive way: Once Poe had spent an evening with him, when he made a manly, straightforward apology for his conduct the night of the dinner, and on another occasion Mr. Kennedy had made an especial point of missing a train to Washington to have an hour's chat with him. In the afternoons he would have a rubber of whist with the archdeacon who lived across the Square—a broad-minded ecclesiastic, who believed in relaxation, although, of course, he was never seen at the club; or he might drop into the Chesapeake for a talk with Richard or sit beside him in his curious laboratory at the rear of his house where he worked out many of the problems that absorbed his mind and inspired his hopes. At night, however late or early—whenever he reached home—there was always a romp with his dogs. This last he rarely omitted. The click of the front-door latch, followed by his firm step overhead, was their signal, and up they would come, tumbling over each other in their eagerness to reach his cheeks—straight up, their paws scraping his clothes; then a swoop into the dining-room, when they would be "downed" to the floor, their eyes following his every movement.
Nor had his own financial situation begun as yet to trouble him. Todd and Pawson, however, had long since become nervous. More than once had they put their heads together for some plan by which sufficient money could be raised for current expenses. In this praiseworthy effort, to Todd's unbounded astonishment, Pawson had one night developed a plan in which the greatly feared and much-despised Gadgem was to hold first place. Indeed on the very morning succeeding the receipt of Pawson's letter and at an hour when St. George would be absent at the club, there had come a brisk rat-a-tat on the front door and Gadgem had sidled in.
Todd had not seen the collector since that eventful morning when he stood by ready to pick up the pieces of that gentleman's dismembered body when his master was about to throw him into the street for doubting his word, and he now studied him with the greatest interest. The first thing that struck him was the collector's clothes. As the summer was approaching he had changed his winter suit for a combination of brown linen bound with black—(second hand, of course, its former owner having gone out of mourning) and at the moment sported a moth-eaten, crape-encircled white beaver with a floppy, two-inch brim, a rusty black stock that grabbed him close under the chin, completely submerging his collar, and a pair of congress gaiters very much run down at the heel. He was evidently master of himself and the situation, for he stood looking from Todd to the young lawyer, a furtive, anxious expression on his face that betokened both a surprise at being sent for and a curiosity to learn the cause, although no word of inquiry passed his lips.
Pawson's opening remark calmed the collector's suspicions.
"EXactly," he answered in a relieved tone, when the plot had been fully developed, dragging a mate of the red bandanna—a blue one—from his pocket and blowing his nose in an impressive manner. "EXactly—quite right—quite right—difficult perhaps—ENORmously difficult but—yes—quite right."
Then there had followed a hurried consultation, during which the bullet-headed darky absorbed every word, his eyes rolling about in his head, his breath ending somewhere near his jugular vein.
These details duly agreed upon, Gadgem bowed himself out of the dining-room, carrying with him a note-book filled with such data as:
2 fowling pieces made by Purdey, 1838. 3 heavy duck guns. 2 English saddles. 1 silver loving cup. 2 silver coasters, etc, etc.,
a list which Todd the night before had prompted and which Pawson, in his clear, round hand, had transferred to a sheet of foolscap ready for Gadgem in the morning.
On reaching the front door the collector stopped and looked furtively up the stairs. He was wondering with professional caution whether St. George had returned and was within hearing distance. If so much as a hint should reach Temple's ears the whole scheme would come to naught. Still in doubt, he called out in his sharpest business voice, as if prolonging a conversation which had been carried on inside:
"Yes, Mr. Pawson, please say to Mr. Temple that it is GADgem, of GADgem & Coombs—and say that I will be here at ten o'clock to-morrow—sharp—on the minute; I am ALways on the minute in matters of this kind. Only five minutes of his time—five minutes, remember—" and he passed out of hearing.
Todd, now duly installed as co-conspirator, opened the ball the next morning at breakfast. St. George had slept late, and the hands of the marble clock marked but a few minutes of the hour of Gadgem's expected arrival, and not a moment could be lost.
"Dat Gadgem man done come yere yisterday," he began, drawing out his master's chair with an extra flourish to hide his nervousness, "an' he say he's commin' ag'in dis mornin' at ten o'clock. Clar to goodness it's dat now! I done forgot to tell ye."
"What does he want, Todd?" asked St. George, dropping into his seat.
"I dunno, sah—said he was lookin' fo' sumpin' fo' a frien' ob his—I think it was a gun—an' he wanted to know what kind to buy fur him—Yes, sah, dem waffles 's jes' off de fire. He 'lowed he didn't know nuffin' 'bout guns—butter, sah?—an' den Mister Pawson spoke up an' said he'd better ask you. He's tame dis time—leastways he 'peared so."
"A fine gun is rather a difficult thing to get in these days, Todd," replied St. George, opening his napkin. "Since old Joe Manton died I don't know but one good maker—and that's Purdey, of London, and he, I hear, has orders to last him five years. No, Todd—I'd rather have the toast."
"Yes, sah—I knowed ye couldn't do nuffln' fur him—Take de top piece—dat's de brownest—but he seemed so cut up 'bout it dat I tol' him he might see ye fur a minute if he come 'long 'bout ten o'clock, when you was fru' yo' bre'kfus', 'fo' ye got tangled up wid yo' letters an' de papers. Dat's him now, I spec's. Shall I show him in?"
"Yes, show him in, Todd. Gadgem isn't a bad sort of fellow after all. He only wants his pound of flesh, like the others. Ah, good-morning, Mr. Gadgem." The front door had been purposely left open, and though the bill collector had knocked by way of warning, he had paused for no answer and was already in the room. The little man laid his battered hat silently on a chair near the door, pulled down his tight linen sleeves with the funereal binding, adjusted his high black stock, and with half-creeping, half-cringing movement, advanced to where St. George sat.
"I said good-morning, Mr. Gadgem," repeated St. George in his most captivating tone of voice. He had been greatly amused at Gadgem's antics.
"I heard you, sir—I heard you DIStinctly, sir—I was only seeking a place on which to rest my hat, sir—not a very inSPIRing hat-quite the contrary—but all I have. Yes, sir—you are quite right—it is a VERY good morning—a most deLIGHTful morning. I was convinced of that when I crossed the park, sir. The trees—"
"Never mind the trees, Gadgem. We will take those up later on. Tell me what I can do for you—what do you want?"
"A GUN, sir—a plain, straightforward GUN—one that can be relied upon. Not for mySELF, sir—I am not murderously inclined—but for a friend who has commissioned me—the exact word, sir—although the percentage is small—comMISsioned me to acquire for him a fowling piece of the pattern, weight, and build of those belonging to St. George W. Temple, Esquire, of Kennedy Square-and so I made bold, sir, to—"
"You won't find it, Gadgem," replied St. George, buttering the toast. "I have two that I have shot with for years that haven't their match in the State. Todd, bring me one of those small bird guns—there, behind the door in the rack. Hand it to Mr. Gadgem. Now, can you see by the shape of—take hold of it, man. But do you know anything about guns?"
"Only enough to keep away from their muzzles, sir." He had it in his hand now—holding it by the end of the barrel, Todd instinctively dodging out of the way, although he knew it was not loaded. "No, sir, I don't know anything—not the very SMALLest thing about guns. There is nothing, in fact, I know so little about as a gun—that is why I have come to you."
St. George recovered the piece and laid it as gently on the table beside his plate as if it had been a newly laid egg.
"No, I don't think you do," he laughed, "or you wouldn't hold it upside down. Now go on and give me the rest."
Gadgem emitted a chuckle—the nearest he ever came to a laugh: "To have it go ON, sir, is infinitely preferable than to have it go OFF, sir. He-he! And you have, I believe you said, two of these highly valuable implements of death?"