"You're certainly a past-master at making a mess of things," William continued. "Your coming back that way fits neatly into your departure. You needn't think people have forgotten that you ran off with another man's wife. And your coming back right now, just when the Montgomerys had buried the hatchet, was calculated with the Devil's own mind."
"So that's the tune, is it?" said Jack, stretching his arms upon the table and clasping his fingers to subdue their nervous twitchings.
"That's just the tune! This town isn't big enough to hold you and the rest of us. You've cost me a lot of money first and last. You made it necessary for us to pull away from Amzi and start all over again, and there was a prejudice against me from the start that I've just about lived down."
Jack grinned unpleasantly.
"Oh, the bank hasn't been terribly prosperous, then!"
William blinked at the thrust. He had given the conversation an unfortunate turn, and he sought uncomfortably for another line of attack. Jack unwittingly opened the way for him.
"You were the good boy of the family and used to be a pillar in the church. I have a distinct though melancholy impression that when I took myself hence you were passing the basket in Center Church every Sunday morning. I don't recall that I ever saw you do it, but it was a matter of common knowledge in this town, Will, that you did that very thing. And being a Christian, just how do you square your effusive brotherly welcome with the gospel? The only reason God makes sinners is to give 'em a chance to repent. Without repentance what do you suppose would become of your churches anyhow?"
"I don't see any repentance in you; and I want to know right now what you've done with that woman?"
Jack blinked, then smiled and gave a laugh expressive of disdain and contempt.
"If you please, which woman?"
William's frown deepened. The one woman was certainly enough, and his rage was increased by the leer that accompanied the question.
"Oh, I dare say there have been enough of them! I mean the one you took away from here; I mean Lois Kirkwood."
"Oh, Lois!" He spoke as though surprised that she should be chosen for particular attention, and his lip curled scornfully. "When a man goes wrong, Will, he pays for it. Take it from me that that's one gospel truth that I've proved to my entire satisfaction. It's queer, Will, how soon a bonfire burns out—the bigger the fire the quicker it goes. I went plum crazy about that girl. She'd married the one particular man on earth who was least likely to make her happy. He bored her. And I guess her baby bored her, too,—she wasn't a domestic animal,—no pussy cat to sit by the fire and play with the baby and have hubby's slippers toasting when he came home to supper. And I had time to play with her; I wasn't so intellectual as Tom, but my nature was a damned sight more sympathetic. It looked as though we had been made for each other, and I was fooled into thinking so. And I was bored myself—this silly little town, with nothing to hold anybody. Lois and I were made for a bigger world—at least we thought so: and by Jove, it was funny how we fooled each other—it was altogether too damned funny!"
"I'm glad you take a humorous view of it," replied William coldly. "Not satisfied with disgracing the family, you come back to rub it in. Where did you leave the woman? I suppose you've chucked her—the usual way."
Jack threw back his head and laughed.
"Well, I like that! You don't know what I had to put up with! She made me suffer, I can tell you! I don't believe she'd deny herself that she made it damned uncomfortable for me. She liked to spend money, for one thing, and I couldn't make it fast enough; and she wanted to mingle with the rich and gay, and our story had followed us, and it's funny, Will, what a lot of old-fashioned, stupid, Thursday-night-prayer-meeting and the-pastor-in-to-tea morality there is left in this fool world! It cut Lois up a good deal, being snubbed by people she wanted to stand well with. It gave me a jolt to find that I wasn't all-sufficient for her after all; which hurt some when we'd decided we could be happy alone together in the woods for the rest of our days. It's a long story, and I'm not going to talk about it. With the money I took away from here I began monkeying with real estate; it didn't seem that anybody out there could lose just then: but I was a bad guesser. In five years I had played in all my chips, and had to sneak around office buildings trying to sell life insurance, which wasn't dignified nor becoming in a member of the haughty house of Holton."
"Sam told me a different story. Why don't you tell the truth if you talk about it at all? You gambled and lost your money—that's what happened; and real estate speculation was only a side line. But Lois had money; I suppose you played that away, too. Sam never seemed quite clear about your relations with her."
"I guess he didn't! There's a queer woman, Will. The inscrutable ways of Providence were not in it with hers. She hated me, but she wouldn't let go of me; seemed to be her idea that shaking one man was enough and she wouldn't let me make her a widow a second time. By George, I couldn't shake her—I had to live off her!"
William shrugged his shoulders and scowled. It was incredible that this could be his own brother who spoke thus of the gravest relationships of life. And it was with a steady sinking of spirit that it was beaten in upon him that this man had come back to plant himself at his door. He was busy calculating the effect upon himself, his family, and his business of the prodigal's return. He was shocked, disgusted, alarmed.
His wife had told him in the long vigil that followed her return from Amzi Montgomery's house, when she learned that her brother-in-law was sleeping off his spree in her guest-room, that Jack had to go. She was proud and arrogant, and she had no idea of relinquishing her social pre-eminence—not too easily won—in the town to which William Holton had brought her to live out her life. One or two of the old families had never received her with any cordiality, clearly by reason of the old scandal. And where there are only seventeen thousand people in a town the indifference of two or three, when they happen to include a woman like Mrs. King, was not to be ignored or borne without rancor. William's indignation was intensified as he reviewed Jack's disclosures from the angle his wife had drawn for him in the midnight conference. His curiosity was sharpened, however, as to the subsequent relationship of Jack and Lois Kirkwood. Seattle is a long way from Montgomery and lines of communication few and slight. Samuel, returning from his visits to the coast, had usually been too full of his own schemes to furnish any satisfactory details of Jack and his wife. William dropped his plumb-line in a new spot where he fancied the water would prove shallow.
"You lived off her, didn't you, until you had lived up all she had? The gospel didn't neglect her; she got her share of the punishment."
"Look here, Will, you mustn't make me laugh like that! You know I used to think I understood human nature, but I never started with that woman. I did live at her expense,—I had to,—and she stood for it until I got to hanging round the saloons too much. She used to pay my dues in the club, damned if she didn't, until I got fired for too much poker in the chamber over the gate. I must say she was a good sport: as a fair-minded man, I've got to admit that. And she swung the lash over me—never laid it on, but made it sizz—whistle—till I'd duck and sniffle; and she did exactly what she pleased without caring a damn whether I liked it or not! By George, I knew she was a wonder when I took her off Kirkwood's hands, but she wasn't wonderful in just the way I thought she'd be. That was where the joke came in. And she made people like her; she could do that; and she got on, so that wherever she could go without me she was welcome. That was after people got sorry for her because she was hooked up to me; but most of 'em, I guess, liked her on her own account. A queer development, Will. For the past five years I've just been a piece of furniture, to be dusted and moved occasionally like an old rocking-chair that gets into a house, nobody knows exactly how, and is shoved around, trying corners where it won't be noticed much, until it winds up in the garret. But after all the corners had been tried,—she didn't have any garret; we lived mostly in hotels and flats,—I was gradually worked out on the second-hand man's wagon, and here I am."
"She kept her money, then?" asked William with assumed indifference.
"Will," said Jack with a mockingly confidential air, leaning forward on the table, "after the first two or three years I never knew whether she had a cent or not, that's the straight of it. Considering that she had thrown away her reputation like an old shoe just for me, and that we lived along under the same roof, that was the most astonishing thing of all. She began by handing me out a hundred now and then when I was broke; then it dropped to ten, and then it got down to a dollar a week,—humiliating, Will, considering that I had given up my interest in the ancient and honorable firm of Montgomery & Holton, Bankers, just for her! But when she shook me for good, I'm damned if she didn't give me a clean thousand just as a consolation prize."
William was more interested in this phase of the relationship than in anything that had gone before. He was aware of the local belief that Jack had thrown away his wife's share of her father's estate in his real estate speculations in Seattle and that Amzi supported her dutifully by a regular allowance; in fact, the three sisters had encouraged this impression by characteristic insinuations.
"What's become of her? Where is she now?"
"That's where you've got me stung: how do I know where she is! After she slipped me the thousand and bade me a long and chilling farewell, I used to keep track of her in one way or another. She had a restless streak in her,—that's why she couldn't stand Tom and the rest of it,—and when it was all peach blossoms and spring with us she liked to take spurts over the world. We used to run down to San Francisco for little sprees, and then when that played out she shifted to New York. But I've lost her trail—I don't any more know where she is than if I'd never laid eyes on her. She went abroad a couple of times and she may be over there now. Say, if Amzi's putting up for her you will lose your main competitor one of these days! She'd bust the biggest bank in Wall Street, that woman! She's a luxurious little devil, and a wonder for looks. Even the harsh trial of living with me didn't wear her to a frazzle the way you might suppose it would. I guess if I hadn't poisoned the wells for her, she could have shaken me for most any man she liked. By George, I'll get to weeping on your neck in a minute, just thinking about her. I started in to tell you what a miserable little wretch she is and I'm winding up by bragging about her. She's got that in her! But she'll bust Amzi before she winds up. And I hope you appreciate the value of that news. Old Amzi, if he hasn't changed, is a fat-head who's content to sit in his little bank and watch the world go by. And I guess he's got a nice bunch of brothers-in-law on his hands. Poor old Amzi! There was always something amusing about the cuss, even when he was a smug little roly-poly as a boy. But I passed his bank this morning and it looked like an undertaker's office. The contrast between that old tomb and your plant pleases me, Will; it soothes my family pride. You are an able man and I congratulate you on your success. Sam liked to cut didoes on thin ice a little too well; but you're a born banker—inherited it from father; and I guess I didn't do you so ill a turn after all when I cut loose with Lois and broke up the old partnership. There wasn't enough room in Montgomery & Holton for all of us."
Several times William shifted his position uneasily. His brother's flattery merely paved the way to a demand—he was confident of this; and he had no intention of yielding to demands. To begin advances to this melancholy wreck would be to establish a precedent for interminable benefactions. It was better to deal with the matter at once. A clerk called him out to speak to a customer and when he came back, Jack was moodily glaring out upon the little court at the rear of the bank. William did not seat himself again, but stood by the table, as though to indicate his intention of terminating the interview.
"I can't give you any more time. Just what have you come back for? I'm entitled to know, and we may as well have it out."
"What have I come back for? I've come back to stay, that's what I'm back for! I want a job, that's all, and if you won't give me one, I'd like to know just where your brotherly heart expects me to go."
"You can't stay here, Jack. You've got to clear out. I don't mean to be hard on you, and I'll give you enough to take you wherever you want to go; but you can't camp here; you've got to move on. If you'd come back like a gentleman, it might have been different; but the whole town's upset. I'd just about lived you down, and here you come back and stir up the whole mess. The way you came back puts us all in the hole; the sympathy of the community was swinging round to our side a little, and even the Montgomerys were making it clear that they were willing to let bygones be bygones and here you come to spoil it all! And you've not only got to go, but you've got to go now, this very day by the first train."
This was received blinkingly. Jack shook his head as though in pity for his brother's harshness.
"For a man brought up by a Christian father and mother to point the door to a long-lost brother is painful, Will. It wounds me deeply. I tell you right now that I'm not going away from here until I get good and ready. Do you follow me?"
He rested the tips of his fingers on the table and bent toward his brother with a cold glitter in his eyes. Under the mockery of his phrases a hot anger lurked.
"All right," said William. "Stay, then. But you can't hang yourself around my neck. Understand that right here."
"You haven't heard all my story yet—"
"I've heard all I'm going to hear. I've heard enough to make me sick. I hope nobody else in this town will ever hear it. It's worse than I had ever imagined—you allowing that woman to support you! And it's nauseating to think that you don't realize the rottenness of it. But you seem to be incapable of any decent feeling about anything."
"Stop sentimentalizing and listen to me. I didn't come back here to enter upon a new social career; I came back on business. You remember, Will, that Sam came West when you and he were selling bonds in this Sycamore Traction line on which I rode proudly home last night. I helped Sam sell a pretty big bunch of those bonds out there. Sam could sell anything—Sam was a wonder! and he planted a big bunch of those things along the coast—my friends, you know. Sam's dead and gone now and I ain't going to knock him—but Sam was an exuberant chap and he overcalculated the cost of building the road. That was on the construction company, but you and Sam were in that—same old game of working both sides of the street. It was just a mistake in figures, of course, but some of those people out there hear the road ain't doing well, and they're friends of mine, Will, valued friends, and now that Sam's gone it's up to you and me to take care of 'em—do you follow me?"
"If that's what you're up to you've made a big mistake. That road's one of the most successful traction lines in the West, and pays its bond interest on the dot."
"Nothing easier; but I happen to know that the last payment was made with borrowed money. Of course, only a little temporary accommodation, but just the same it wasn't paid out of earnings. And, Will, you ought to be mighty careful—you oughtn't to advance bank funds for such a purpose; it's damned bad business; it's downright immoral; that's all! But how about the bonds your construction company got—that nice little margin between a fair profit for building the road and a big fat steal at the expense of the bondholders? And you authorized the sale of bonds at eighty to pay the construction bill, got ninety, and pocketed the difference. Oh, you needn't get white and blink at me. I know what he did with his share of the boodle—he had to take care of his political chums he got into other schemes. I know all about Sam—he was always borrowing, we will call it, from Peter to pay Paul, and most of it got into Sam's pocket. Now here's my position; right here's where I come in. I'm going to help you take care of this, but you've got to act white with me. I'm not going to be kicked out of town—not unless you go with me. Is that plain?"
"You're a fool. I understand nothing except that you're trying to blackmail me; and it won't go. Why, you ought to know that the thing you accuse Sam of doing would have landed him and me, too, in the penitentiary. What do you suppose the trustee for the bondholders was doing? What do you imagine the New York investors were thinking about?"
"They were asleep, Will," Jack replied, with a gleam of malignant humor. "And Sam was awful slick. Sam could sell winter underwear in hell. And I guess you could sell anthracite at a profit down there, too. You talk about the family dignity;—by George, I never started with you fellows! Running away with another man's wife is tame business compared with your grafting. And I've got a little more news for you. The clouds are gathering, you might say, in all parts of the horizon." He swept the room with a comprehensive gesture. "It's just one of those queer twists of the screw of fate that brings us all up against Tom Kirkwood. Tom's smart: he always was, and as straight a man as God Almighty ever put on the footstool, and he's prying into Sycamore Traction. I stopped off for a day or two in Indianapolis and got on to this. There was a lawyer and an officer of the Desbrosses Trust & Guaranty Company out here from New York to talk things over with Kirkwood,—he has some pull down there,—and they've employed him. While Sam lived he watched little things like that; filled up the accountants with champagne and took care of the statements, but I guess you are not quite as smart as Sam. I guess it's about all you can do to take care of the bank examiner when he drops in to shake hands."
William had listened intently, his arms folded, a smile of derision on his face.
"Just how much do you charge for this information?" he demanded coldly.
"I'm not going to charge you; I'm going to help you, Will. It's my duty as a brother to warn you and help you out of trouble. Family feeling is strong in me: I'm not a man to let my own brother go down if I can keep him up. I see it in your eye that—"
William flung round to the door and swung it open.
"Get out of here!"
"Oh, is that the answer? Then, all right!"
He picked up his hat, drew on his coat unhurriedly, walked calmly round the table and lounged out of the bank.
NAN BARTLETT'S DECISION
"Dad's gone to Indianapolis to be gone several days and didn't expect to be back to-night; so come over and stay with me, won't you—please? If you won't I'll have to go to Aunt Josephine's, which is a heartbreaking thought."
This was the second day after the party, and Nan agreed to go. Phil's maid-of-all-work did not sleep at the house and the aunts had asserted that Phil's new status as a member of society made necessary some sort of chaperonage. Nan arrived at the house late in the afternoon and found Phil opening a box of roses that had just come from Indianapolis by express.
"American beauties! and grand ones!"
She handed Nan the card and watched her face as she read it.
"I should have guessed Charlie Holton," said Nan colorlessly. "Well, they're fine specimens."
"It's very nice of him, I think," said Phil. "Particularly when I was so snippy to him."
"Why did you snip him?" asked Nan, watching Phil thrust the last of the long stems into a tall vase.
"Oh, he started in to rush me. And I guess he's some rusher. I suppose he's had a lot of practice."
"I suppose he has," said Nan indifferently.
"And nobody ever gave me just the line of talk he puts up, except of course Lawrince."
She feigned to be observing the adjustment of the roses with a particular interest, and looking round caught Nan frowning.
"Is he trying to flirt with you? I supposed even he had his decent moments. When did that happen?"
"Oh, at the party; everything happened at the party."
"Two men making love to you on the same evening is a good record for Montgomery. I suppose Lawrence played the ardent Romeo game; I understand that he's better 'off' than 'on.' And you snipped him, of course."
"Oh, I mean to snip them all! Isn't that right?"
"It's pathetic that Lawrence Hastings never quite forgets that he played the banana circuit in repertoire. That man's an awful bore."
"I find him amusing," said Phil provokingly. "And he always gives me a box at matinees. Which is just that much more than I ever get out of my other imitation uncles. If I led him on a trifle, don't you suppose he might come to the point of proposing to fly with me? That would be a consummation devoutly to be worked for."
"Phil, I'll send you to bed if you talk like that."
"There's always the window and the old apple tree; I dare you to put me to bed! I suppose," she said, nodding in the direction of the roses, "that those are a sort of peace offering, to make up for his uncle coming to the party as he did. If that's the idea it was decent of him."
The maid brought in a box that had just been left at the kitchen door. Phil ran to the window and caught a glimpse of a man closing the gate. It was Fred Holton, in a long ulster with the collar turned up about his ears. He untied his horse, attached to a ramshackle buggy, and drove off. Phil recognized him instantly, but made no sign to Nan.
Across the top of the small pasteboard box, "Perishable" was scrawled. Inside, neatly dressed, lay six quails. On a card was written:—
"Compliments of Listening Hill Farm."
"What's Listening Hill Farm?" asked Nan.
"That's Fred Holton's. He lives out there now. It's just like that boy to slip round to the back door with an offering like that. Roses from Charlie; birds from Fred. And there's just about that difference between them."
Nan's eyes clouded.
"Phil," she said with emphasis, "those three aunts of yours haven't the sense of rabbits! The comparison flatters them. They had no business asking the Holtons to your party. It was unnecessary—it was absurd. It was cruel!"
Nan was not often like this. There was unmistakable indignation in her tone as she continued:—
"Your Uncle Amzi should have set his face against it. And I suppose they were satisfied with the outcome; I devoutly hope so."
"Well, don't jump on Amy; he only let them have their way to avoid a fuss. When the three of them descend on him they do try Amy's soul; he never admits it, but I always know afterwards. It unsettles him for a week."
"Those women," said Nan, "have been all over town apologizing for Jack Holton—as though it was up to them to defend him for turning up at your party vilely drunk. I tell you, Phil, I'm glad you have the sense you have in that head of yours and that you've grown up to a point where we can talk of things. The Holtons are no good! There's a crooked streak in the whole lot. And all that's the matter with your blessed trio of aunts is their ambition to stand well with Mrs. William, and your precious uncles lean on the First National counter when they want to borrow money. But you'd think they'd have some respect for your father, for your uncle, for you!"
"Oh, well, it's all over now," replied Phil.
"It's a good thing you're the wise child you are! You understand perfectly that the Holtons are not for you in this world. And if your father weren't the gentleman he is he would have made a big row about those people being asked to your party: it was an insult, too deep for my powers of description. Those women treat your father as though he were a halfway idiot—a fool to be thrust around when it pleases them, and to be the object of simpering tears when they want to play the pathetic in speaking of your mother to people. They are detestable, contemptible. And Jack Holton's turning up at Amzi's was the very last straw."
Phil gazed at Nan with increasing surprise. This was not the familiar Nan Bartlett of the unfailing gentleness, the whimsical humor. This was almost a scene, and scenes were not to the liking of either of the Bartlett sisters.
"Daddy hardly referred to that, Nan. I don't think it really troubled him."
"That's the worst of it, dear child! Of course he wouldn't show feeling about it! That's the heartbreaking thing about that father of yours, that he has borne that old trouble so bravely. It was ghastly that that man of all men should have stumbled into Amzi's house in that way. Nothing was ever nobler than the way your father bore it."
She knelt suddenly and clasped Phil in her arms as though to shield her from all the wrongs of the world. There were tears in Nan's eyes, unmistakably, when Phil stroked her cheek, and then for the first time with a sudden impulse Nan kissed her. Phil's intercourse with the Bartletts had been in the key of happy companionship, marked with a restraint that the girl respected and admired. There had been an imperceptible line beyond which she had never carried her pranks with them. Tears she had never associated with either of the sisters. She would have assumed, if it had ever been a question in her mind, that Rose would have been the likelier to yield to emotion.
Nan walked to the window and looked out upon the slowly falling snow. Phil was busy for a moment readjusting herself to the new intimacy established by the sight of her friend's agitation. These first tears that Phil had ever seen in Nan's eyes had a clarifying effect upon her consciousness and understanding. There flashed upon her keen mind a thought—startling, almost incredible. It was as though in some strange fashion, in the unlikeliest spot, she had come upon a rare flower, too marvelous to breathe upon. Her quick wits held it off guardedly for bewildered inspection. Could it be possible that it was for her father that Nan had yielded to tears? Beneath liking and sympathy might there lie a deeper feeling than friendship in this woman's heart? There had always seemed to be an even balance of regard for the sisters in all her father's intercourse with Buckeye Lane. They had been a refuge and resource, but she had imagined that he went there as she did because it was the very pleasantest place in town to visit. Whether he admired one more than the other had never been a problem in her mind, though now she recalled the intimations of her aunts—intimations which she had cast into the limbo to which she committed their views and insinuations on most topics. Phil stood by the black slate mantel of the shelf-lined sitting-room, her heart beating fast. But Nan turned to her laughingly.
"It's old age, Phil! Rose always tells me that I must stop peppering my victuals or I'll become one of the sobbing sisterhood one of these days. What have you been reading lately, Phil?"
"Just finished 'The Gray Knight of Picardy.' Daddy didn't want me to read it—said it was only half good and that I oughtn't to waste time on books that weren't a hundred per cent good. I think it's bully. I'm crazy about it. It's so beautifully, deliciously funny. And Nan—why, Nan, it sounds just like you!"
"Elucidate," remarked Nan carelessly.
"Oh, it's like you, some of it—the general absurdness of it all; and then some of it is so amazingly like dad—when he has a high-falutin' fit and talks through his hat in the old Morte Darthur lingo. It's Malory brought up to date, with a dash of Quixote. I nearly died at that place where the knight breaks his lance on the first automobile he ever saw and then rides at the head of the circus parade. It's certainly a ticklesome yarn."
She advanced upon Nan dramatically, with arm outstretched, pointing accusingly. "Look me in the eye, Nan! Did you and daddy frame that up between you? Be careful now! Dad wrote prodigiously all last winter—let me think it was a brief; and you and he used to get your heads together a good deal, private like, and I feigned not to notice because I thought you were talking about me!"
She clasped Nan by the wrists and laughed into her eyes.
"Go and sit in your little chair, Phil. Your intuitions are playing tricks with your judgment."
"Fudge! I know it's true now. The author's name in the book is a nom de plume. I saw that in a literary note somewhere."
Nan had seriously hoped Phil would not learn of the joint authorship; but already it was an accepted fact in the girl's mind. She was smitten with contrition for her blindness in having failed to see earlier what was now plain enough! Nan was in love with her father! Their collaboration upon a book only added plausibility to her surmise. Nothing could be plainer, nothing, indeed, more fitting! Her heart warmed at the thought. Her father stood forth in a new light; she was torn with self-accusations for her stupidity in not having seen it all before. Admitting nothing, Nan parried her thrusts about the "Gray Knight." When Phil caught up the book and began to read a passage that she had found particularly diverting, and which she declared to be altogether "Nanesque," as she put it, Nan snatched the book away and declined to discuss the subject further.
Nan had recovered her spirits, and the two gave free rein to the badinage in which they commonly indulged.
They were sitting down at the table when Kirkwood arrived. He had found it possible to come home for the night and run back to the city in the morning. Now that Phil's suspicions had been aroused as to Nan, she was alert for any manifestation of reciprocal feeling in her father. He was clearly pleased to find Nan in his house; but there was nothing new in this. He would have been as glad to see Rose, Phil was sure. Phil launched daringly upon "The Gray Knight of Picardy," parrying evasion and shattering the wall of dissimulation behind which they sought to entrench themselves. It was just like Nan and her father; no one else would ever have thought up anything so preposterous, so killingly funny. She went for the book and cited chapters and attributed them, one after the other, to the collaborators.
"Oh, you can't tell me! That talk between the knight and the cigar-store Indian is yours, Nan; and the place where he finds the militia drilling and chases the colonel into the creek is yours, daddy! And I'm ashamed of both of you that you never told me! What have I done to be left out of a joke like this! You might have let me squeeze in a little chapter somewhere. I always thought I could write a book if some one would give me a good start."
"We're cornered," said Nan finally. "But we'll have to bribe her."
"I came by the office and found some more letters from magazines that want short stories, serials, anything from the gifted author of 'The Gray Knight of Picardy,'" said Kirkwood. "Why not enlarge the syndicate, Nan, and let Phil in? But I've got to retire; I mustn't even be suspected. This is serious. It would kill my prospects as a lawyer if it got out on me that I dallied at literature. It's no joke that the law is a jealous mistress. And now I have the biggest case I ever had; and likely to be the most profitable. How do we come by these birds, Phil?"
"Fred Holton brought them in, daddy. You remember him; he was at the party."
"Yes; I remember, Phil. He's Samuel's boy, who's gone to live on their old farm."
Nan turned the talk away from the Holtons and they went into the living-room where Kirkwood read some of the notices he had found in his mail. He improvised a number of criticisms ridiculing the book mercilessly and he abused the imaginary authors until, going too far, Phil snatched away the clippings and convicted him of fraud. She declared that he deserved a mussing and drove him to a corner to make the threat good, and only relented when she had exacted a promise from him never to leave her out again in any of his literary connivings with Nan.
The wind whistled round the house, and drove the snow against the panes. A snowstorm makes for intimacy, and the three sat by the grate cozily, laughing and talking; it was chiefly books they discussed. This was the first time Nan had ever shared a winter-night fireside with the Kirkwoods, much as she saw of them. And Phil was aware of a fitness in the ordering of the group before the glowing little grate. The very books on the high shelves seemed to make a background for Nan. Nothing could be more natural than that she should abide there forever. Phil became so engrossed in her speculations that she dropped out of the talk. Inevitably the vague shadow of the mother she had never known stole into the picture. She recalled the incident of the broken negative that had slipped from her father's fingers upon the floor of the abandoned photograph gallery. Her young imagination was kindled, and her sympathies went out to the man and woman who sat there before the little grate, so clearly speaking the same language, so drawn together by common interests and aspirations.
She was brought to earth by Nan's sudden exclamation that she must go home. There was no question about it, she said, when they pleaded the storm as a reason for spending the night; she had come merely to relieve Phil's loneliness. Nan protested that she could go alone; but Kirkwood without debating the matter got into his ulster, and Phil, screened by the door, watched them pass under the electric light at the corner.
* * * * *
The streets were deserted and the storm had its will with the world. Nan and Kirkwood stopped for breath and to shake off the snow where a grocer's shed protected the sidewalk.
"I came back to-night," he said, "because I wanted to see you, and I knew I should find you with Phil. Nan, after what happened at Amzi's the other night I find I need you more than I ever knew. I was afraid you might imagine that would make a difference. But not in the way you may think—not about Lois! It was just the thought of him—that he had once been my friend, and came back like that. It was only that, Nan. If she had come back and stood there in the door I shouldn't have had a twinge. I'm all over that. I've been over it for a long time."
"I think I understand that, but nothing can make any difference as to us. That is one thing that is not for this world! Come, we must hurry on!"
As she took a step forward he sprang in front of her.
"Nan, I've got to go back to the city on the morning train. I want you to tell me now that you will marry me—let us say in the spring. Let me have that to look forward to. I've waited a long time, and the years are passing. I want you to say 'yes' to-night."
He touched her shoulders lightly with his hands. They slipped along her arms till he clasped her fingers, tightly clenched in her muff.
"You love me, Nan; I know you do! And you have known a long time that I care for you. Nothing was ever as dear as the thought of you. Whatever has gone before in my life is done and passed. I can't have you say 'no' to me. Please, dear Nan—dearest!"
It was a strange place for lovers' talk, but the tumult of the storm was in Kirkwood's heart. The weariness of a laborious day vanished in the presence of this woman. His habitual restraint, the reticences of his nature were swept away. His was no midsummer passion; winter's battle-song throbbed in his pulses. He caught her arm roughly as she sought to continue their flight.
"No, Tom; no!"
"Then why?" he persisted. "It can't be because of Lois—you can't suspect that even the thought of her wounds me now. Jack's coming back proved that to me: I mean what I say; I don't care any more! There's nothing for me in this world but you—you and Phil! The memory of that other woman is gone; I give myself to you as though she had never been."
"Oh, Tom, I don't believe you! I don't believe any man like you ever forgets! And Phil mustn't know you even think you have forgotten! That would be wrong; it would be a great sin! She must never think you have forgotten the woman who is her mother. And it isn't right that you should forget! There are men that might, but not you—not you, dear Tom!"
She shook off his hands and flung herself against the storm. He plunged after her, following perforce. It was impossible to talk, so blinding was the slant of snow and sleet in their faces. She drove on with the energy born of a new determination, and he made no effort to speak again as he tramped beside her.
When they reached the house in Buckeye Lane he sought to detain her with a plaintive "Please, Nan?" But she rapped on the door and when Rose opened it slipped in, throwing a breathless good-night over her shoulder.
THE BEST INTERESTS OF MONTGOMERY
Phil dropped into the "Evening Star" office to write an item about the approaching Christmas fair at Center Church, for which she was the publicity agent. Incidentally she asked Billy Barker, the editor, to instruct her in the delicate art of proof-reading. As he was an old friend she did not mind letting him into the secret of "The Dogs of Main Street." Barker's editorial sense was immediately roused by Phil's disclosure. He said he would write to "Journey's End" for advance sheets and make it a first-page feature the day it appeared.
Montgomery was a literary center; in the early eighties it had been referred to by the Boston "Transcript" as the Hoosier Athens; and the Athenians withheld not the laurel from the brows of their bards, romancers, and essayists. Not since Barker had foreshadowed the publication of "The Deathless Legion," General Whitcomb's famous tale of the Caesars, had anything occurred that promised so great a sensation as the news that Phil had ventured into the field of authorship. Barker even fashioned phrases in which he meant to publish the glad tidings,—"a brilliant addition to the Hoosier group"; "a new Jane Austen knocks at the door of Fame," etc. He jotted down a list of the commonest typographical symbols, and warned Phil against an over-indulgence in changes, as it might prejudice the "Journey's End" office against her.
"I was about to offer you a job, Phil, but now that you're a high-priced magazine writer I'm ashamed to do it. Our local has skipped and I'm almost up against going out to chase a few items myself. You might pull out that church fair a few joints, or I'll be reduced to shoving in boiler plate on the first page; which is reprehensible. Kindly humble yourself and give me some 'Personal and Society,'—some of your highly interesting family must be doing something or somebody,—dish it up and don't spare the gravy."
"You haven't heard rumors that the Hastings is to be turned into a fil-lum show-house, have you?" asked Phil, fishing a lead pencil stub from her pocket.
"Lord, no! Has our own Hamlet come to that? Write a hot roast of it; turn the screw on this commercializing of our only theater—this base betrayal of public confidence by one to whom we all looked for nobler things. I'm sore at Lawrence anyhow for kicking at our write-up of those outlaws who strolled through here playing 'She Never Told Her Love.' The fact is that girl told it in the voice of one who should be bawling quick orders in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Here's where we taunt Mr. Hastings with his own lofty idealism. Have all the fun with him you like; and not a soul shall ever know from me who knocked him."
Phil nibbled her pencil meditatively.
"You've got the wrong number. Lawrince hasn't found the price yet; he's only getting estimates; but you'd better coax him to make the change—bring the drammer closer to the hearts of the people. None of these cheap fil-lums where a comic dog runs in and upsets the tea-table, just as the parson is about to say grace, but the world's greatest artists brought within the reach of all who command the homely nickel. Do you follow me, O protector of the poor?"
"I see your family pride is stung, Phil. Let it go at that. There's a cut of Hastings as Romeo that I'm utilizing as a paper-weight, and I'll run that just to show there's no hard feeling. By the by, Phil, how's your pa getting on with the traction company?"
"Nothing doing! I'm not as foolish as I am young. And besides I don't know."
The editor took a turn across the room and rumpled his hair. He pointed to a clipping on his desk from the Indianapolis "Advertiser" of that morning. The headlines proclaimed:—
SCANDAL IN SYCAMORE TRACTION
RUMORS THAT RECEIVERSHIP IS IMMINENT
FOREIGN BONDHOLDERS THREATENING
HOLTON ESTATE TO BE INVESTIGATED
Phil's face grew serious. Her father had not been home for several days and she knew that his business in Indianapolis had absorbed his time and attention increasingly.
"I'm sure I don't know anything about it," she answered, "and of course if you thought I did you wouldn't ask me."
"Of course not, Phil. But it's a mess. And I don't know whether to print something about it or let it go. Bill Holton's out of town and I don't like to shoot without giving him a chance. But I owe him a few. If the company goes bust, there's going to be a row round here we won't forget in a hurry. Every widow and orphan in the county has got some of that stuff. They worked that racket as hard as they could—home road for the home people. What's the answer?"
Phil drew up the editor's clip of paper and wrote:—
"Mr. Amzi Montgomery went to Indianapolis yesterday to attend the Nordica concert."
Barker stared at this item blankly.
"What's that got to do with it?"
"Nothing," said Phil indifferently; "it's only an item."
"Amzi's always going to concerts," remarked the editor inconsequently.
"I thought maybe he wasn't going to this one, for the excellent reason that he declined to take me along."
Barker ran his hand through his hair, looked at Phil with dawning intelligence, and his brow cleared.
"I haven't said anything," remarked Phil discreetly, "because I don't know anything."
Barker put on his coat and hat.
"Guess I'll go out and sniff the local feeling on this proposition. It's about time I blew the lid off and said a few things about Bill Holton. If Bernstein brings in copy for his Christmas 'ad,' whistle for the boy and tell 'em to hustle it. Hang your stuff on the hook and I'll write the heads later. Don't let your playful humor get away with you, and if any farmers come in with the biggest pumpkin ever raised on Sugar Creek, note the name and weight carefully, call the boy and send the precious fruit right home to our wife. Our annual biggest pumpkin is long overdue and undelivered. You might just head that item 'When the Frost is on the Punkin.' We have captious subscribers who check up on favorite quotations and our aim is to please one and all."
A desk stood by the window from which the editorial eye in its frenzied rollings enjoyed a fine sweep of Main Street. To Phil Main Street ran round the world. Its variety was infinite. No one knew the ways, the interests, the joys and sorrows of Montgomery better than she. Every one was, in a sense, a character. More or less unconsciously she fitted them all into little dramas, or sketched them with swift, telling strokes. The fact that this Main Street summarized American life; that there were hundreds of Main Streets presenting much the same types, the same mild encounters and incidents, appealed to her sense of humor. Her longest journey in the world had been a summer excursion to New England with her father, and she had been struck by the similarity of the phenomena observable in Williamstown, Pittsfield, Northampton—and Montgomery! In every town, no matter what its name, there was always the same sleepy team in front of the Farmers' Bank, the same boy chasing his hat, the same hack-driver in front of the hotel, the same pretty girl bowing to the same delighted young man near the same town pump or the soldiers' monument in the square.
Phil wrote busily. It was easy for her to write, and when, looking up casually, items were suggested to her by the passers-by, she returned to her work with a smile on her face. Judge Walters passed carrying a satchel; this meant that he had returned from holding court in Boone County; Captain Wilson stumped by with a strange young man who Phil reasoned immediately must be the nephew he had expected to visit him during the holidays. The new auto-truck of the express company, which had long been forecast in Main Street rumor, rumbled by, and she heralded its arrival in a crisp paragraph. "Spress," the venerable dog that for ages had followed the company's old horse and wagon, was at last out of commission, Phil's "brevity" recited. The foreman came in from the composing-room, told her gravely that the paper was overset, and departed with her copy.
She took up the article relating to Sycamore Traction and read it through to the end. Many of the terms meant nothing to her; but the guarded intimations of improper conduct on the part of the promoters and directors were sufficiently clear. What interested her most of all was the accusation, cautiously attributed "to one in a position to know," that the estate of Samuel Holton had been so manipulated as to conceal part of the assets, and that a movement was on foot to reopen the estate with a view to challenging the inventory. The names of Charles Holton and his Uncle William, president of the First National Bank of Montgomery, appeared frequently in the article, which closed with a statement signed by both men that the stories afloat were baseless fabrications; that the company was earning its charges and that the rumors abroad through the state were the result of a conspiracy by a number of stockholders to seize control of the company.
Looking up, Phil saw her father pass the window, and before she could knock on the glass to attract his attention he came in hurriedly.
"What are you up to, Phil? Where's Barker?"
"Out taking the air. His local's quit and I'm doing a few literary gems for him." She rose and leaned across the counter. Anxiety was plainly written on her father's face, and she surmised that something of importance had brought him back from the city at this hour. He had not expected to return until Saturday, and this was only Thursday.
"I must see Barker. Where do you suppose he went?"
"He's trying to make up his mind what to do about that," said Phil, indicating the clipping.
Kirkwood took from his pocket several sheets of typewritten legal cap, and ran them over.
"I want him to print this; it must get in to-day. The people here mustn't be stampeded by those stories. A repetition of them in the 'Star' might do great harm—incalculable harm to the community and to all its interests."
"It doesn't sound pretty—that piece in the 'Advertiser.'"
"It's all surmise and speculation. That's what I've been in the city about lately; and if they give us a chance we'll pull it out without scandal."
"Suppose I write an interview with you along that line and stick your statement on the end of it?"
"I'll have to see Barker first: he's supposed to be unfriendly to the Holtons—old political feeling."
It occurred to Phil that it was odd for her father to be interposing himself between the Holtons and scandalous insinuations of the press as to their integrity. Tom Kirkwood reflected a moment, then opened the gate in the office railing and sat down beside her.
"I've got to get the twelve o'clock train back," he said, "and this must go in to-day. We must reassure the people as quickly as possible."
She wrote an opening paragraph without further parley and read it. He made a few changes, and then dictated a statement as attorney for the Desbrosses Trust & Guaranty Company, trustee for the Sycamore bondholders.
The stories set afloat at Indianapolis were gross exaggerations, he declared, and there was no occasion for alarm in any quarter. It was true that the company had suffered serious losses owing to unfortunate accidents, but these were not of a character to jeopardize the interests of bondholders. A thorough investigation was in progress, and judgment should be reserved until the exact truth should be known. The trustee meant to safeguard every interest of the investors.
Kirkwood was lost in thought for several minutes, and then took a sheet of paper and experimented with a number of sentences until these survived his careful editing:—
"I personally believe that the affairs of the Sycamore Traction Company will be speedily adjusted in a way that will satisfy those concerned, and meanwhile all efforts to shake public confidence in any of the interests or institutions of Montgomery can only react disastrously upon those guilty of such attempts."
He read this over frowningly.
"I think that will be all, Phil," he said, handing her a clean copy.
While she was numbering the pages, Barker came in and Kirkwood drew him into a corner, where they conversed earnestly. The editor had met that morning many citizens who spoke bitterly of the Sycamore Traction Company. The Indianapolis "Advertiser's" circulation in Montgomery was almost equal to that of the "Evening Star"; and on the wintry corners of Main Street, in the lobby of the Morton House, and in the court-house, men were speculating as to the effect of the reports from Indianapolis upon the Holton bank. The Holtons were Democrats and the "Evening Star" was the Republican county organ. Barker disliked William Holton on personal grounds and here was his chance for reprisal.
"They're all crooks," said the editor hotly; and cut Kirkwood short with "No one knows that better than you."
Kirkwood ignored this thrust.
"It isn't your feeling or mine, Barker, about these people. It's the town and its best interests we've got to consider. I give you my word that I believe these kinks in Sycamore will be straightened out. Nobody knows more about the situation than I do. If you repeat this 'Advertiser' article, you'll start a run on the First National Bank, and if it should go down, it wouldn't do any of us any good, would it? It wouldn't help the town any, would it? I want you to trust me about this. There's no question of newspaper enterprise involved; but there is a chance for you to serve the community. The very fact that you have never been friendly to the Holtons will give additional weight to what you print to-day. I'm not asking you to smother this talk as a favor to me, but for the good of the town—all of us. And I believe you're big enough and broad enough to see it."
Barker was reluctant to yield. His paper was one of the most influential country papers in the state. He was proud of its reputation and anxious to do nothing that would injure its hard-won prestige.
"That's all right, Kirkwood, but how about that swindling construction company the Holtons worked as a side line? The bad service the company has given from the start pretty nearly proves that there was crooked work there. How do you get around that?"
"You'll have to believe what I say, that we will handle it all to the satisfaction of the public. But smashing a bank won't help any. We're trying to manage in such way that no innocent party will suffer."
"Well, there's nothing innocent about these Holtons. Sam died and got out of it, but Will and this young Charlie are off the same block. And now Jack's come back to make trouble for them. I don't see myself jumping in to protect these fellows; if they've got themselves in a hole, let them wiggle out."
"You're not talking like a reasonable human being, Barker. Try to overcome personal prejudices. Just remember that several hundred people—our friends and neighbors—are going to be hurt if the bank fails. I've just headed off Waterman. He was about to bring suit for a receiver on behalf of one of the local bondholders on the ground of mismanagement. That would be a mistake. It's in our plans to bring up the road's efficiency at once. The trustee is in a position to do that. I want you to help me quiet these disturbing rumors. If I didn't believe it would all come out right, I'd tell you so very frankly."
Barker shrugged his shoulders and walked to his desk. He read Phil's introduction and the accompanying statement with Kirkwood's name attached.
"All right, Tom. But remember that this is personal to you; I wouldn't do it for any other man on earth."
"You're doing it for the town, Barker. We're all friends and neighbors here; and I give you my word that you won't regret it. I've got to run, Phil. Sorry; but I'll be back in a day or two. How are Nan and Rose?"
"Nan staying with you?"
"No; I've moved over there for a few days."
"That's all right. Give them my compliments."
The door closed on him as Barker came back from the composing-room, where he had carried the Sycamore article and ordered it double-leaded. Phil, gathering up her belongings, lingered for a word. Barker ripped the wrapper from an exchange absently.
"Phil, you've never suspected your father of being a little touched in his upper story, have you?"
"That short-circuited; say it some other way," observed Phil, buttoning her glove.
"That dad of yours, Phil, if he ain't plumb crazy, is the whitest white man that ever trod the footstool. I always suspected him of being tolerably highminded, but I guess if ever a man climbed on top of his soul and knew that he was the boss of it with the help of Almighty God, that man is Tom Kirkwood. It's got me fuddled, Phil. It's addled me like the report of a tariff commission or an argument for government ownership of laying hens; but I respect it, and I admire it. Be good to your daddy. So far as I know he hasn't any competition in his class."
Phil pondered this as she walked toward Buckeye Lane. It was not necessary for her to understand the intricacies of the traction company's troubles to realize that her father had interceded for the Holtons. Barker's praise of him warmed her heart. She knew that her father was by no means tame and bloodless. In many long talks, tramping and camping, they had discussed nearly every subject under the sun; and she knew that his wrath blazed sometimes at the evils and wrongs of the world. Once she had gone unbidden to the court-house to hear him speak in a criminal case, where he had volunteered to defend an Italian railroad laborer who had been attacked by a gang of local toughs and in the ensuing fight had stabbed one of his assailants. Kirkwood was not an orator by the accepted local standard,—a standard established by "Dan" Voorhees and General "Tom" Nelson of an earlier generation,—but that afternoon, after pitilessly analyzing the state's case, he had yielded himself to a passionate appeal for the ignorant alien that had thrilled through her as great music did. She had never forgotten that; it had given her a new idea of her father. There had been something awful and terrifying in his arraignment of the witnesses who sought to swear away the cowed prisoner's liberty. Her father's gentleness, his habitual restraint, had seemed finer and nobler after that.
In the nature of her upbringing Phil had developed the habit of thinking her way out of perplexities. Her intimate knowledge of the history and traditions of Montgomery furnished the basis for a healthy philosophy, and the wide range of her well-directed reading had opened doors that let in upon her intelligence much of the light and shadow of human experience. Happiness was not, she knew, an inalienable right, but something to be sought and worked for. Her thoughts played about her father and his life—that broken column of a life, with its pathetic edges! What would become of him and Nan, now that she knew Nan loved him, and imaginably, he loved her? For the first time in her life she found her face pressed against a dark pane, unable to see light.
She was conscious that some one was walking rapidly behind her, and she whirled round as her name was spoken. It was Fred Holton, who had evidently been following her.
"Why so formal! Why didn't you whistle?" she asked, shaking hands with him. "Those birds you sent me were meat for gods.
'Then mighty Jove, Grabbing the last brown quail from off the plate, Shouted, "For gods alone such food"; and bade Dian to skip, with bow well bent, and bring A billion birds to grace another feast.'"
"If Dian filled that order," said Fred, "it would get her into trouble with the game warden."
"That was one good thing about the gods," remarked Phil as he caught step with her; "they didn't have to be afraid of policemen. How did you come to tear yourself loose from Stop 7 to-day?"
"Trouble, if you want the real truth."
They had reached the college and were walking along the Buckeye Lane side of the campus. Fred was wrapped in his ulster and wore an old fur cap with its ear-flaps gathered up and tied on top. Now that the first pleasure of the meeting had passed, an anxious look had come into his face. He stared straight ahead, walking doggedly.
"I came into town to see your father, but I just missed him. I wanted to talk to him."
"He hasn't been in town much lately and he was only here for an hour this morning. But he'll be back in a few days."
"I'm sorry," said Fred, "not to see him to-day."
Just what business he had with her father she could not imagine; but she was sorry for his trouble, whatever it might be. In her recent reflections touching the Holtons she had not thought of Fred at all; nor did it occur to her now that he was in any way concerned with the Sycamore difficulties.
"Well, Mr. Holton, if you will be real nice, I'll let you call me Phil. I met you before I grew up—that night I danced in the cornfield. The moon introduced and chaperoned us, after a fashion, so we'll consider that you belong to the earlier period of what might be called my life. That was my last fling. When I came home that night I was a grown-up. How do you like that, Fred?"
"More than I care to say!" And his face lighted.
He realized perfectly that knowing his diffidence she was trying to make things easier for him, just as she had at her party. Phil was wondering whether she dared ask him to go to the Bartletts' with her for luncheon.
"It's lonesome, Phil, not having anybody to talk to about your troubles. There are times when we've got to lean up against advice."
"They say I never do much leaning," Phil replied. "My aunts say it. There ought to be a place like a post-office where you could poke in a question and get the answer right back; but there isn't."
"Our folks are in a lot of trouble, according to the papers," said Fred. "That's what I wanted to see your father about."
"I felt that I ought to see him as soon as possible."
"I wouldn't trouble about what's in the papers. That's what my father came back for to-day—to head off the home papers about the traction company."
"Just how do you mean?" he asked, clearly puzzled. "I thought he was on the other side of the case."
"Well, the 'Star' this evening will say that everything will be all right, and for people not to get excited. I don't see why you should bother. You're a farmer and not mixed up in the traction business."
He seemed not to notice when they reached and passed the Bartletts', though she had told him she was going there for luncheon.
"They say Charlie didn't play straight in settling father's estate; that it's going to be opened up and that we've got to give back what we got from it. The 'Advertiser' had all that this morning. Perry brought me his paper and we talked it over before I came in. He said it wasn't any of my business; but I think it is. We owe it to father—all of us—if there's anything wrong, to show our willingness to open up the estate. I thought I'd like to tell your father that."
"We've got to turn back here. I understand how you feel, but I can't advise you about that. That article said you weren't responsible—it said in very unpleasant words that you had been robbed, and that giving you the farm and making you think that was your fair share was a part of the fraud. If they should go into that, you might get a lot more. Isn't that so?"
"I don't believe Charlie did it; I don't believe it any more than I believe that my father made money unfairly out of the building of the trolley line. But it's up to us to reply to this attack in a way to stop all criticism. We can't have people thinking such things about us," he went on more earnestly. "It's ghastly! And I'm going to surrender the farm; I won't keep it if these things are true or half true. I won't hold an acre of it until these questions are settled!"
"That sounds square enough. But I don't know anything about it. Just on general principles, as long as you're not mixed up in the fuss, I'd hang on to my farm, particularly if you were entitled to more than you got. But you need a lawyer, not a girl to talk to."
"I suppose that's so; and I oughtn't to have talked to you about it at all. But somehow—"
They had reached the Bartletts' again and Phil paused with her hand on the gate. She had decided not to ask him in to luncheon; his mood was not one that promised well for a luncheon party; and Nan, at least, had clearly manifested her unfriendliness toward all the Holtons.
"Somehow, I felt that I'd like to tell you how I felt about it. I shouldn't want you to think we were as bad as that story in the 'Advertiser' makes us out."
"That's all right, Fred. This will all come out right"; and Phil swung open the gate and stepped into the little yard.
"I want," said Fred, detainingly, speaking across the gate; "I want you to think well of me! I care a good deal about what you think of me!"
"Oh, everybody thinks well of you!" answered Phil, and caught up the drumstick and announced herself.
A week before Christmas Mrs. William Holton gave a sleigh-ride and skating-party for a niece from Memphis, and Phil was invited. She mentioned the matter to her father, and asked him what she should do about it.
He had come back from Indianapolis in good spirits, and told her that the affairs of the traction company had been adjusted and that he hoped there would be no more trouble. He seemed infinitely relieved by the outcome, and his satisfaction expressed itself to her observing eyes in many ways. The confidence reposed in him by his old friend, the counsel of the Desbrosses Trust & Guaranty Company, had not only pleased him, but the success that had attended his efforts to adjust the traction company's difficulties without resorting to the courts had strengthened his waning self-confidence. He even appeared in a new suit of clothes, and with his beard cut shorter than he usually wore it,—changes that evoked the raillery in which Phil liked to indulge herself. He was promised the care of certain other Western interests of the Trust Company, and he had been offered a partnership in Indianapolis by one of the best lawyers in the state.
"Things are looking up, Phil. If another year had gone by in the old way, I should have been ready for the scrap heap. But I miss the cooking our poverty introduced me to; and I shan't have any more time for fooling with excursions into Picardy with the Gray Knight. By the way, I found some strange manuscript on my desk at the office to-day. If you've take up the literary life you'll have to be careful how you leave your vestigia in lawyers' offices. It was page eighteen of something that I took the liberty of reading, and I thirsted for more."
She had not told him about "The Dogs of Main Street," wishing to wait until she could put the magazine containing it into his hands. Under the stimulus of the acceptance of her sketch she had been scratching vigorously in her spare moments. Having begun with dogs she meditated an attack upon man, and the incriminating page she had left behind in her father's office was a part of a story she was writing based upon an incident that had occurred at a reunion of Captain Wilson's regiment that fall in Montgomery. A man who had been drummed out of the regiment for cowardice suddenly reappeared among his old comrades with an explanation that restored him to honored fellowship. Phil had elaborated the real incident as Captain Wilson described it, and invested it with the element of "suspense," which she had read somewhere was essential to the short story.
Phil was living just now in a state of exaltation. She began a notebook after the manner of Hawthorne's, and was astonished at the ease with which she filled its pages. Now that her interest was aroused she saw "material" everywhere. The high school had given her German and French, and having heard her father say that the French were the great masters of fiction, she addressed herself to Balzac and Hugo. The personalities of favorite contemporaneous writers interested her tremendously, and she sought old files of literary periodicals that she might inform herself as to their methods of work. She kept Lamb and Stevenson on the stand by her bed and read them religiously every night. There had never been any fun like this! Her enjoyment of this secret inner life was so satisfying that she wished no one might ever know of it. She wrote and rewrote sentences and paragraphs, thrust them away into the drawers of the long table in her room to mellow—she had got this phrase from Nan,—and then dug them out in despair that they seemed so lifeless. She planned no end of books and confidently set down titles for these unborn masterpieces. Nan and Rose marked the change in her. At times she sat with her chin in her hand staring into vacancy. The two women speculated about this and wondered whether her young soul was not in the throes of a first love affair.
Now that fortune smiled upon her father Phil's happiness marked new attitudes, with no cloud to darken the misty-blue horizons of her dreams. She meant to be very good to her father. And as to his marrying Nan, she was giving much time to plots for furthering their romance.
"Fred Holton was looking for you the other day. I suppose you haven't seen him."
"Yes; he came to Indianapolis and saw me at the hotel. I remember that he was at your party, but I don't recall how you got acquainted with him?"
"Oh, that last night we camped at Turkey Run I wandered off by myself and met him in the funniest fashion, over by the Holton barn. They were having a dance—Charlie and Ethel, and Fred was watching the revel from afar, and saw me dancing like an idiot round the corn-shocks. And I talked to him across the fence and watched the dance in the barn until you blew the horn. I didn't tell you about it because it seemed so silly—and then I thought you wouldn't like my striking up acquaintances with those people. But Fred is nice, I think."
"He seems to be a very earnest young person. He came to me on a business matter in a spirit that is to his credit."
Phil had decided, in view of Nan's unlooked-for arraignment, to give her father another chance to express himself as to her further social relations with the Holtons.
"Daddy dear, I want you to tell me honestly whether you have any feeling about those people," she said when they were established at the fireside for the evening. "Of course, you know that one's aunts were responsible for asking them to Amy's party; it wasn't Amy's doings; but if you want me to keep clear of them I'll do it. Please tell me the truth—just how you feel about it."
"Phil," said Kirkwood, meeting her eyes steadily, "those aunts of yours are silly women—with vain, foolish, absurd ideals. They didn't consult me about asking the Holtons because I'm a stupid old frump, and it didn't make any difference whether I'd like it or not. But I'm eternally grateful that they did it; and I'm glad that other man came back just as he did. For all those things showed me that the years have blotted out any feeling I had against them. I haven't a bit, Phil. Maybe I ought to have; but however that may be there's no bitterness in my soul. And I'm glad I've discovered that; it's a greater relief to me than I can describe."
His smile, the light touch he gave her hands, carried conviction. The discussion seemed to afford him relief.
"So far as the Holtons concern me, there's peace between our houses. It's perfectly easy for a man to shoot another who has done him a wrong; but it doesn't help any, for,"—and he smiled the smile that Phil loved in him—"for the man being dead can't know how much his enemy enjoys his taking off! Murder, as a fine art, Phil, falls short right there."
He had not mentioned her mother; and Phil wondered whether she too shared this amnesty. It was inconceivable that he should have forgiven the man if he still harbored hatred of the woman.
With a sudden impulse she rose and caught his face in her hands.
"Why don't you marry Nan, daddy?"
She saw the color deepen in his cheeks and a startled look came into his eyes.
"What madness is this, Phil?" he asked, with an effort at lightness.
"It means that I think it would be nice—nice for you and Nan and nice for me. I can see her here, sitting right there in that chair that she always sits in when she comes. I think it would be fun—lots of fun for her to be here all the time, so we wouldn't always be trailing over there."
He laughed; she felt that he was not sorry that she had spoken of Nan.
"Are we always trailing over there? I suppose they really are our best friends. But there is Rose, you know. Wouldn't she look just as much at home in her particular chair as Nan?"
"Well, Rose is fine, too, but Rose is different."
"Oh, you think there's a difference, do you?"
He picked up a book, turned over the leaves idly, and when he spoke again it was not of Nan.
"If you want to go to Mrs. Holton's party it's all right, Phil. I suppose most of the young people will be there."
"Yes; it's a large party."
"Then go and have a good time. And Phil—"
"Be careful what foolish notions you get into your head."
* * * * *
Mrs. William Holton undeniably did things with an air. It may have been an expression of her relief at having disposed of Jack Holton so quickly and effectively—he had vanished immediately after his interview with William in the bank—that her sleigh-ride and skating-party as originally planned grew into a function that well-nigh obscured Phil's "coming-out." It began with a buffet luncheon at home, followed by the ride countryward in half a dozen bob-sleds and sleighs of all descriptions. It was limited to the young people, and Phil found that all her friends were included. Ethel and Charles Holton had come over from Indianapolis to assist their aunt in her entertainment.
"Mighty nice to find you here!" said Charles to Phil as he stood beside her on the sidewalk waiting for their appointed "bob." "And you may be sure I'm glad to get a day off. I tell you this business life is a grind. It's what General Sherman said war is. I suppose your father told you what a time we've been having straightening out the traction tangle. Scandal—most outrageous lying—but that father of yours is a master negotiator. He ought to be in the diplomatic service."
He looked at her guardedly with a quick narrowing of the eyes.
"Oh, I suppose it wasn't really so serious," said Phil indifferently. "Father never brings business home with him and I only know that I don't like having him away so much."
"Yes," said Holton, "I don't doubt that you miss him. But Montgomery is getting gay. Over in Indianapolis there's more doing, of course, and bigger parties; but they don't have the good old home flavor. It's these informal gatherings of boys and girls who have known each other all their lives that count."
It was the brightest of winter days, with six inches of snow, and cold enough to set young blood tingling. They set off with a merry jingling of bells and drove through town to advertise their gayety before turning countryward. The destination was Turkey Run, that fantastic anomaly of the Hoosier landscape, where Montgomery did much of its picnicking.
A scout sent ahead the day before had chosen a stretch of ice where the creek broadened serenely after its bewilderingly tumultuous course through the gorge. There the ice was even and solid and the snow had been scraped away. In the defile, sheltered by its high rocky banks, bonfires were roaring. The party quickly divided itself into twos—why is it that parties always effect that subdivision with any sort of opportunity?—and the skaters were off.
Phil loved skating as she loved all sports that gave free play to her strong young limbs. The hero of the Thanksgiving football game had attached himself to her, but Phil, resenting his airs of proprietorship, deserted him after one turn.
As her blood warmed, her spirits rose. The exercise and the keen air sent her pulses bounding. It was among the realizations of her new inner life that physical exercise stimulated her mental processes. To-day lines, verses, couplets—her own or fragments of her reading—tumbled madly over each other in her head. No one ranged the ice more swiftly or daringly. She had put aside her coat and donned her sweater—not the old relic of the basketball team, but a new one from her fall outfit, which included also the prettiest of fur toques. The color was bright in her cheeks and the light shone in her eyes as she moved up and down the course with long, even strides or let herself fly at the boundaries, or turned in graceful curves. Skating was almost as much fun as swimming, and even better fun than paddling a canoe.
She kept free of companions for nearly an hour, taunting those who tried to intercept her, and racing away from several cavaliers who combined in an effort to corner her. Then having gained the heights of her imaginings, she was ready to be a social being once more.
Charles Holton, who had viewed her flights with admiration as he helped the timid and awkward tyros of the company, swung into step with her.
"It's wonderful how you do it? Please be kind to me a mere mortal!"
He caught her pace and they moved along together at ease. Her mood had changed and she let him talk all he liked and as he liked. They had met twice at parties since she had snubbed him at Amzi's the night of her presentation, and he had made it plain that he admired her. He contrasted advantageously with the young gentlemen of Montgomery. He was less afraid of being polite, or his politeness was less self-conscious and showed a higher polish. He had twice sent her roses and once a new novel, and these remembrances had not been without their effect. It was imaginable that his tolerance of the simple sociabilities of Montgomery was attributable to an interest in Phil, who dreamed a great deal these days; and there was space enough in the ivory tower of her fancy to enshrine lovers innumerable. Charles was a personable young man, impressionable and emotional, and not without imagination of his own. Her humor, and the healthy common-sense philosophy that flowered from it, were the girl's only protection from her own emotionalism and susceptibility. Even in the larger world of the capital there was no girl as pretty as Phil, Charles assured himself; she was not only agreeable to look at, but she piqued him by her indifference to his advances. His usual cajoleries only provoked retorts that left him blinking, not certain whether they were intended to humble him or to stimulate him to more daring efforts.
"You're the only girl in the bunch who skates as though she loved it. You do everything as though it was your last hour on earth and you meant to make the most of it. I like that. It's the way I feel about things myself. If I had your spirit I'd conquer the world."
"Well, the world is here to be conquered," said Phil. "What peak have you picked to plant your flag on?"
"Oh, I want money first—you've got to have it these days to do things with; and then I think I'd like power. I'd go in for politics—the governor's chair or the senate. If father hadn't died he could have got the governorship easy; he was entitled to it and it would have come along just in the course of things. What would you like to do best of all?"
"If I told you, you wouldn't believe it. I don't want a thing I haven't got—not a single thing. On a day like this everything is mine—that long piece of woods over there—black against the blue sky—and the creek underfoot—I couldn't ask for a single other thing!"
"But there must be a goal you want to reach—everybody has that."
"Oh, you're talking about to-morrow! and this is to-day. And sufficient unto the day is the joy thereof. If I ever told anybody what I mean to do to-morrow, it would be spoiled. I'm full of dark secrets that I never tell any one."
"But you might tell me—I'm the best possible person to tell secrets to."
"I can't be sure of that, when I hardly know you at all."
"That's mighty cruel, you know, when I feel as though I had known you always."
He tried to throw feeling into this, but the time and place and her vigorous strides over the ice did not encourage sentiment.
"You oughtn't to tell girls that you feel you have known them always. It isn't complimentary. You ought to express sorrow that they are so difficult to know and play the card that you hope by great humility and perseverance one day to know them. That is the line I should take if I were a man."
He laughed at this. There were undoubted fastnesses in her nature that were not easily attainable. She seemed to him amazingly mature in certain ways, and in others she was astonishingly childlike.
"They say you're a genius; that you're going to do wonderful things," he said.
"Who says it?" asked Phil practically, but not without interest.
"Oh, my aunt says it; she says other people say it."
"Well, my aunts haven't said it," remarked Phil. "According to them my only genius is for doing the wrong thing."
"We needn't any of us expect to be appreciated in our own families. That's always the way. You read a lot, don't you?"
"I like to read; but you can read a lot without being a genius. Geniuses don't have to read—they know it all without reading. So there's that."
"I'll wager you write, too;—confess now that you do!"
"Letters to my father when he's away from home—one every night. But he isn't away very much."
"But stories and things like that. Yes; don't deny it: you mean to be a writer! I'm sure you can succeed at that. Lots of women do; some of the best writers are women. You will write novels like—like—George Eliot."
Phil laughed her derision of the idea.
"She knew a lot; more than I could ever know if I studied all my life. But there's only one George Eliot; I'm hardly likely—just Phil Kirkwood in Montgomery, Indiana,—to be number two."
The direction of the talk was grateful to her. It was pleasant to feel the warmth of his interest in her new secret aims without having to acknowledge them. It was flattering that he surmised the line of her interests, and spoke of them so kindly and sympathetically.
"I try to do some reading all the time," he went on; "but a business man hasn't much chance. Still, I usually keep something worth while on the center table, and when I travel I carry some good book with me. I like pictures, too, and music; and those things you miss in a town like Montgomery."
"Well, Montgomery is interesting just the same," said Phil defensively. "The people are all so nice and folksy."
He hastened to disavow any intention of slurring the town. He should always feel that it was home, no matter how far he might wander. He explained, in the confidence that seemed to be establishing itself between them, that there was a remote possibility that he might return to Montgomery and go into the bank with his uncle, who needed assistance. It was desirable, he explained, to keep the management of the bank in the hands of the family.
"You know," he went on, "they printed outrageous stories about all of us in the 'Advertiser.' They were the meanest sort of lies, but I'd like you to know that we met the issue squarely. I've turned over to your father as trustee all the property they claimed we had come by dishonestly. The world will never know this, for your father shut up the newspapers—it was quite wonderful the way he managed it all;—and, of course, it doesn't make any difference what the world thinks. This was my affair, the honor of my family, and a matter of my own conscience."
Her knowledge of the traction muddle was sufficient to afford a background of plausibility for this highminded renunciation. There was something likable in Charles Holton. His volubility, which had prejudiced her against him in the beginning, seemed now to speak for a frankness that appealed to her. There was no reason for his telling her these things unless he cared for her good opinion; and it was not disagreeable to find that this man, who was ten years her senior and possessed of what struck her as an ample experience of life, should be at pains to entrench himself in her regard.
As she made no reply other than to meet his eyes in a look of sympathetic comprehension, he went on:—
"You won't mind my saying that we were all terribly cut up over Uncle Jack's coming back here; but I guess we've disposed of him. I don't think he's likely to trouble Montgomery very much. Uncle Will had it out with him the day after he showed up so disgracefully at your party; and, of course, Uncle Jack would never have done that if he had been himself. He went to Indianapolis and tried to make a lot of trouble for all of us, but that was where your father showed himself the fine man he is. I guess it isn't easy to put anything over on that father of yours; he's got the brains and character to meet any difficulty squarely."
Phil murmured her appreciation. They had paused in the middle of the course and were idly cutting figures, keeping within easy conversational range.
"Your initials are hard to do," said Holton, backing into line beside her and indicating the letters his skates had traced on the surface. The "P. K." was neatly done. Phil without comment etched a huge "C" and then cut an "H" within its long loop.
"Splendid! You are the best skater I ever saw! I'd like to cut that out and keep it in cold storage as a souvenir."
This did not please her so much as his references to her hidden ambitions, and seeing that she failed to respond, and fearing one of her taunts, he led the way toward the gorge. It was four o'clock, and already shadows were darkening the deep vale where most of the skaters had now gathered about the bonfires. Phil's popularity was attested by the tone in which the company greeted her. She sat down on a log and entered into their give-and-take light-heartedly, while Holton unfastened her skates. He had found her coat and thrown it round her shoulders. He was very thoughtful and attentive, and his interest in her had not gone unremarked.