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Peter - A Novel of Which He is Not the Hero
by F. Hopkinson Smith
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But she still continued to criticise him, at which Peter would rub his hands and break out with:

"Fine fellow!—square peg in a square hole this time. Fine fellow, I tell you, Felicia!"

He receiving in reply some such answer as:

"Yes, quite lovely in fairy tales, Peter, and when you have taught him—for you did it, remember—how to shovel and clean up underbrush and split rocks—and that just's what Ruth told me he was doing when she took a telegram to her father which had come to the house—and he in a pair of overalls, like any common workman—what, may I ask, will you have him doing next? Is he to be an engineer or a clerk all his life? He might have had a share in his uncle's business by this time if he had had any common-sense;" Peter retorting often with but a broad smile and that little gulp of satisfaction—something between a chuckle and a sigh—which always escaped him when some one of his proteges were living up to his pet theories.

And yet it was Miss Felicia herself who was the first to welcome the reprobate, even going to the front door and standing in the icy draught, with the snowflakes whirling about her pompadoured head, until Jack had alighted from the tail-end of Moggins's 'bus and, with his satchel in his hand, had cleared the sidewalk with a bound and stood beside her.

"Oh, I'm so glad to be here," Jack had begun, "and it was so good of you to want me," when a voice rang clear from the top of the stairs:

"And where's daddy—isn't he coming?"

"Oh!—how do you do, Miss Ruth? No; I am sorry to say he could not leave—that is, we could not persuade him to leave. He sent you all manner of messages, and you, too, Miss—"

"He isn't coming? Oh, I am so disappointed! What is the matter, is he ill?" She was half-way down the staircase now, her face showing how keen was her disappointment.

"No—nothing's the matter—only we are arranging for an important blast in a day or two, and he felt he couldn't be away. I can only stay the night." Jack had his overcoat stripped from his broad shoulders now and the two had reached each other's hands.

Miss Felicia watched them narrowly out of her sharp, kindly eyes. This love-affair—if it were a love-affair—had been going on for years now and she was still in the dark as to the outcome. There was no question that the boy was head over heels in love with the girl—she could see that from the way the color mounted to his cheeks when Ruth's voice rang out, and the joy in his eyes when they looked into hers. How Ruth felt toward her new guest was what she wanted to know. This was, perhaps, the only reason why she had invited him—another thing she kept strictly to herself.

But the two understood it—if Miss Felicia did not. There may be shrewd old ladies who can read minds at a glance, and fussy old men who can see through blind millstones, and who know it all, but give me two lovers to fool them both to the top of their bent, be they so minded.

"And now, dear, let Mr. Breen go to his room, for we dine in an hour, and Holker will be cross as two sticks if we keep it waiting a minute."

But Holker was not cross—not when dinner was served; nobody was cross—certainly not Peter, who was in his gayest mood; and certainly not Ruth or Jack, who babbled away next to each other. Peter's heart swelled with pride and satisfaction as he saw the change which two years of hard work had made in Jack—not only in his bearing and in a certain fearless independence which had become a part of his personality, but in the unmistakable note of joyousness which flowed out of him, so marked in contrast to the depression which used to haunt him like a spectre. Stories of his life at his boarding-house—vaguely christened a hotel by its landlady, Mrs. Hicks—bubbled out of the boy as well as accounts of various escapades among the men he worked with—especially the younger engineers and one of the foremen who had rooms next his own—all told with a gusto and ring that kept the table in shouts of merriment—Morris laughing loudest and longest, Peter whispering behind his hand to Miss Felicia:

"Charming, isn't he?—and please note, my dear, that none of the dirt from his shovel seems to have clogged his wit—" at which there was another merry laugh—Peter's, this time, his being the only voice in evidence.

"And she is such fun, Miss Felicia" (Mrs. Hicks was under discussion), called out Jack, realizing that he had, perhaps—although unconsciously—failed to include his hostess in his coterie of listeners. "You should see her caps, and the magnificent airs she puts on when we come down late to breakfast on Sunday mornings."

"And tell them about the potatoes," interrupted Ruth.

"Oh, that was disgraceful, but it really could not be helped—we had greasy fried potatoes until we could not stand them another day, and Bolton found them in the kitchen late one night ready for the skillet the next morning, and filled them with tooth powder, and that ended it."

"I'd have set you fellows out on the sidewalk if I'd been Mrs. Hicks," laughed Morris. "I know that old lady—I used to stop with her myself when I was building the town hall—and she's good as gold. And now tell me how MacFarlane is getting on—building a railroad, isn't he? He told me about it, but I forget."

"No," replied Jack, his face growing suddenly serious as he turned toward the speaker; "the company is building the road. We have only got a fill of half a mile and then a tunnel of a mile more."

Miss Felicia beamed sententiously when Jack said "we," but she did not interrupt the speaker.

"And what sort of cutting?" continued the architect in a tone that showed his entire familiarity with work of the kind.

"Gneiss rock for eleven hundred feet and then some mica schist that we have had to shore up every time we move our drills," answered Jack quietly.

"Any cave-ins?" Morris was leaning forward now, his eyes riveted on the boy's. What information he wanted he felt sure he now could get.

"Not yet, but plenty of water. We struck a spring last week" (this time the "we" didn't seem so preposterous) "that came near drowning us out, but we managed to keep it under with a six-inch centrifugal; but it meant pumping night and day."

"And when is he going to get through?"

"That depends on what is ahead of us. Our borings show up all right—most of it is tough gneiss—but if we strike gravel or shale again it means more timbering, of course. Perhaps another year—perhaps a few months. I am not giving you my own opinion, for I've had very little experience, but that is what Bolton thinks—he's second in command next to Mr. MacFarlane—and so do the other fellows at our boarding house."

And then followed a discussion on "struts," roof timbers and tie-rods, Jack describing in a modest, impersonal way the various methods used by the members of the staff with which he was connected, Morris, as usual, becoming so absorbed in the warding off of "cave-ins" that for the moment he forgot the table, his hostess and everybody about him, a situation which, while it delighted Peter, who was bursting with pride over Jack, was beginning to wear upon Miss Felicia, who was entirely indifferent as to whether the top covering of MacFarlane's underground hole fell in or not.

"There, now, Holker," she said with a smile as she laid her hand on his coat sleeve—"not another word. Tunnels are things everybody wants to get through with as quick as possible—and I'm not going to spend all night in yours—awful damp places full of smoke—No—not another word. Ruth, ask that young Roebling next you to tell us another story—No, wait until we have our coffee and you gentlemen have lighted your cigars. Perhaps, Ruth, you had better take Mr. Breen into the smoking-room. Now, give me your arm, Holker, and you come, too, Major, and bring Peter with you to my boudoir. I want to show you the most delicious copy of Shelley you ever saw. No, Mr. Breen, Ruth wants you; we will be with you in a few minutes—" Then after the two had passed on ahead—"Look at them, Major—aren't they a joy, just to watch?—and aren't you ashamed of yourself that you have wasted your life? No arbor for you! What would you give if a lovely girl like that wanted you all to herself by the side of my frog pond?"

A shout ahead from Jack, and a rippling laugh from Ruth now floated our way.

"Oh!—OH!—" and "Yes—isn't it wonderful—come and see the arbor—" and then a clatter of feet down the soggy steps and fainter footfalls on the moist bricks, ending in silence.

"There!" laughed Miss Felicia, turning toward us and clapping her hands—"they have reached the arbor and it's all over, and now we will all go out on the porch for our coffee. I haven't any Shelley that you have not seen a dozen times—I just intended that surprise to come to the boy and in the way Ruth wanted it—she has talked of nothing else since she knew he was coming. Mighty dangerous, I can tell you, that old bench. Ruth can take care of herself, but that poor fellow will be in a dreadful state if we leave them alone too long. Sit here, Holker, and tell me about the dinner and what you said. All that Peter could remember was that you never did better, and that everybody cheered, and that the squabs were so dry he couldn't eat them."

But the Scribe refuses to be interested in Holker's talk, however brilliant, or in Miss Felicia's crisp repartee. His thoughts are down among the palms, where the two figures are entering the arbor, the soft glow of half a dozen lanterns falling upon the joyous face of the beautiful girl, as, with hand in Jack's, she leads him to a seat beside her on the bench.

"But it's like home," Jack gasped. "Why, you must remember your own garden, and the porch that ran alongside of the kitchen, and the brick walls—and just see how big it is and you never told me a word about it! Why?"

"Oh, because it would have spoiled all the fun; I was so afraid daddy would tell you that I made him promise not to say a word; and nobody else had seen it except Mr. Morris, and he said torture couldn't drag it out of him. That old Major that Uncle Peter thinks so much of came near spoiling the surprise, but Aunt Felicia said she would take care of him in the back of the house—and she did; and I mounted guard at the top of the stairs before anybody could get hold of you. Isn't it too lovely?—and, do you know, there are real live frogs in that pond and you can hear them croak? And now tell me about daddy, and how he gets on without me."

But Jack was not ready yet to talk about daddy, or the work, or anything that concerned Corklesville and its tunnel—the transition had been too sudden and too startling. To be fired from a gun loaded with care, hard work and anxiety—hurled through hours of winter travel and landed at a dinner-table next some charming young woman, was an experience which had occurred to him more than once in the past two years. But to be thrust still further into space until he reached an Elysium replete with whispering fountains, flowering vines and the perfume of countless blossoms—the whole tucked away in a cosey arbor containing a seat for two—AND NO MORE—and this millions of miles away, so far as he could see, from the listening ear or watchful eye of mortal man or woman—and with Ruth, too—the tips of whose fingers were so many little shrines for devout kisses—that was like having been transported into Paradise.

"Oh, please let me look around a little," he begged at last. "And this is why you love to come here?"

"Yes—wouldn't you?"

"I would not live anywhere else if I could—and it has just the air of summer—and it feels like a summer's night, too—as if the moon was coming up somewhere."

Ruth's delight equalled his own; she must show him the new tulips just sprouting, taking down a lantern so that he could see the better; and he must see how the jessamine was twisted in and out the criss-cross slats of the trellis, so that the flowers bloomed both outside and in; and the little gully in the flagging of the pavement through which ran the overflow of the tiny pond—till the circuit of the garden was made and they were again seated on the dangerous bench, with a cushion tucked behind her beautiful shoulders.

They talked of the tunnel and when it would be finished; and of the village people and whom they liked and whom they didn't—and why—and of Corinne, whose upturned little nose and superior, dominating airs Ruth thought were too funny for words; and of her recently announced engagement to Garry Minott, who had started for himself in business and already had a commission to build a church at Elm Crest—known to all New Jersey as Corklesville until the real-estate agencies took possession of its uplands—Jack being instrumental, with Mr. MacFarlane's help, in securing him the order; and of the dinner to be given next week at Mrs. Brent Foster's on Washington Square, to which they were both invited, thanks to Miss Felicia for Ruth's invitation, and thanks to Peter for that of Jack, who, at Peter's request, had accompanied him one afternoon to one of Mrs. Foster's receptions, where he had made so favorable an impression that he was at once added to Mrs. Foster's list of eligible young men—the same being a scarce article. They had discussed, I say, all these things and many more, in sentences, the Scribe devoutly hopes, much shorter than the one he has just written—when in a casual—oh, so casual a way—merely as a matter of form—Ruth asked him if he really must go back to Corklesville in the morning.

"Yes," answered Jack—"there is no one to take charge of the new battery but myself, and we have ten holes already filled for blasting."

"But isn't it only to put the two wires together? Daddy explained it to me."

"Yes—but at just the right moment. Half a minute too early might ruin weeks of work. We have some supports to blow out. Three charges are at their bases—everything must go off together."

"But it is such a short visit."

Some note in her voice rang through Jack's ears and down into his heart. In all their intercourse—and it had been a free and untrammelled one so far as their meetings and being together were concerned—there was invariably a barrier which he could never pass, and one that he was always afraid to scale. This time her face was toward him, the rosy light bathing her glorious hair and the round of her dimpled cheek. For an instant a half-regretful smile quivered on her lips, and then faded as if some indrawn sigh had strangled it.

Jack's heart gave a bound.

"Are you really sorry to have me go, Miss Ruth?" he asked, searching her eyes.

"Why should I not be? Is not this better than Mrs. Hicks's, and Aunt Felicia would love to have you stay—she told me so at dinner."

"But you, Miss Ruth?" He had moved a trifle closer—so close that his eager fingers almost touched her own: "Do you want me to stay?"

"Why, of course, we all want you to stay. Uncle Peter has talked of nothing else for days."

"But do you want me to stay, Miss Ruth?"

She lifted her head and looked him fearlessly in the eyes:

"Yes, I do—now that you will have it that way. We are going to have a sleigh-ride to-morrow, and I know you would love the open country, it is so beautiful, and so is—"

"Ruth! Ruth! you dear child," came a voice—"are you two never coming in?—the coffee is stone cold."

"Yes, Aunt Felicia, right away. Run, Mr. Breen—" and she flew up the brick path.

For the second time Miss Felicia's keen, kindly eyes scanned the young girl's face, but only a laugh, the best and surest of masks, greeted her.

"He thinks it all lovely," Ruth rippled out. "Don't you, Mr. Breen?"

"Lovely? Why, it is the most wonderful place I ever saw; I could hardly believe my senses. I am quite sure old Aunt Hannah is cooking behind that door—" here he pointed to the kitchen—"and that poor old Tom will come hobbling along in a minute with 'dat mis'ry' in his back. How in the world you ever did it, and what—"

"And did you hear my frogs?" interrupted his hostess.

"Of course he didn't, Felicia," broke in Peter. "What a question to ask a man! Listen to the croakings of your miserable tadpoles with the prettiest girl in seven counties—in seven States, for that matter—sitting beside him! Oh!—you needn't look, you minx! If he heard a single croak he ought to be ducked in the puddle—and then packed off home soaking wet."

"And that is what he is going to do himself," rejoined Ruth, dropping into a chair which Peter had drawn up for her.

"Do what!" cried Peter.

"Pack himself off—going by the early train—nothing I can do or say has made the slightest impression on him," she said with a toss of her head.

Jack raised his hands in protest, but Peter wouldn't listen.

"Then you'll come back, sir, on Saturday and stay until Monday, and then we'll all go down together and you'll take Ruth across the ferry to her father's.

"Thank you, sir, but I am afraid I can't. You see, it all depends on the work—" this last came with a certain tone of regret.

"But I'll send MacFarlane a note, and have you detailed as an escort of one to bring his only daughter——"

"It would not do any good, Mr. Grayson."

"Stop your nonsense, Jack—" Peter called him so now—"You come back for Sunday." These days with the boy were the pleasantest of his life.

"Well, I would love to—" Here his eyes sought, Ruth—"but we have an important blast to make, and we are doing our best to get things into shape before the week is out."

"Well, but suppose it isn't ready?" demanded Peter.

"But it will be," answered Jack in a more positive tone; this part of the work was in his hands.

"Well, anyhow, send me a telegram."

"I will send it, sir, but I am afraid it won't help matters. Miss Ruth knows how delighted I would be to return here and see her safe home."

"Whether she does or whether she doesn't," broke in Miss Felicia, "hasn't got a single thing to do with it, Peter. You just go back to your work, Mr. Breen, and look after your gunpowder plots, or whatever you call them, and if some one of these gentlemen of elegant leisure—not one of whom so far has offered his services—cannot manage to escort you to your father's house, Ruth, I will take you myself. Now come inside the drawing-room, every one of you, or you will all blame me for undermining your precious healths—you, too, Major, and bring your cigars with you. So you don't drop your ashes into my tea-caddy, I don't care where you throw them."

It was late in the afternoon of the second day when the telegram arrived, a delay which caused no apparent suffering to any one except, perhaps, Peter, who wandered about with a "Nothing from Jack yet, eh?" A question which no one answered, it being addressed to nobody in particular, unless it was to Ruth, who had started at every ring of the door-bell. As to Miss Felicia—she had already dismissed the young man from her mind.

When it did arrive there was a slight flutter of interest, but nothing more; Miss Felicia laying down her book, Ruth asking in indifferent tones—even before the despatch was opened—"Is he coming?" and Morris, who was playing chess with Peter, holding his pawn in mid-air until the interruption was over.

Not so Peter—who with a joyous "Didn't I tell you the boy would keep his promise—" sprang from his chair, nearly upsetting the chess-board in his eagerness to hear from Jack, an eagerness shared by Ruth, whose voice again rang out, this time in an anxious tone,

"Hurry up, Uncle Peter—is he coming?"

Peter made no answer; he was staring straight at the open slip, his face deathly pale, his hand trembling.

"I'll tell you all about it in a minute, dear," he said at last with a forced smile. Then he touched Morris's arm and the two left the room.



CHAPTER XIV



The Scribe would willingly omit this chapter. Dying men, hurrying doctors, improvised stretchers made of wrenched fence rails; silent, slow-moving throngs following limp, bruised bodies,—are not pleasant objects to write about and should be disposed of as quickly as possible.

Exactly whose fault it was nobody knew; if any one did, no one ever told. Every precaution had been taken each charge had been properly placed and tamped; all the fulminates inspected and the connections made with the greatest care. As to the battery—that was known to be half a mile away in the pay shanty, lying on Jack Breen's table.

Nor was the weather unfavorable. True, there had been rain the day before, starting a general thaw, but none of the downpour had soaked through the outer crust of the tunnel to the working force inside and no extra labor had devolved on the pumps. This, of course, upset all theories as to there having been a readjustment of surface rock, dangerous sometimes, to magnetic connections.

Then again, no man understood tunnel construction better than Henry MacFarlane, C.E., Member of the American Society of Engineers, Fellow of the Institute of Sciences, etc., etc. Nor was there ever an engineer more careful of his men. Indeed, it was his boast that he had never lost a life by a premature discharge in the twenty years of his experience. Nor did the men, those who worked under him—those who escaped alive—come to any definite conclusion as to the cause of the catastrophe: the night and day gang, I mean,—those who breathed the foul air, who had felt the chill of the clammy interior and who were therefore familiar with the handling of explosives and the proper tamping of the charges—a slip of the steel meaning instantaneous annihilation.

The Beast knew and could tell if he chose.

I say "The Beast," for that is what MacFarlane's tunnel was to me. To the passer-by and to the expert, it was, of course, merely a short cut through the steep hills flanking one end of the huge "earth fill" which MacFarlane was constructing across the Corklesville brook, and which, when completed would form a road-bed for future trains; but to me it was always The Beast.

This illusion was helped by its low-browed, rocky head, crouching close to the end of the "fill," its length concealed in the clefts of the rocks—as if lying in wait for whatever crossed its path—as well as its ragged, half-round, catfish gash of a mouth from out of which poured at regular intervals a sickening breath—yellow, blue, greenish often—and from which, too, often came dulled explosions, followed by belchings of debris which centipedes of cars dragged clear of its slimy lips.

So I reiterate, The Beast knew.

Every day the gang had bored and pounded and wrenched, piercing his body with nervous, nagging drills; propping up his backbone, cutting out tender bits of flesh, carving—bracing—only to carve again. He had tried to wriggle and twist, but the mountain had held him fast. Once he had straightened out, smashing the tiny cars and the tugging locomotive; breaking a leg and an arm, and once a head, but the devils had begun again, boring and digging and the cruel wound was opened afresh. Another time, after a big rain, with the help of some friendly rocks who had rushed down to his help, he had snapped his jaws tight shut, penning the devils up inside, but a hundred others had wrenched them open, breaking his teeth, shoring up his lips with iron beams, tearing out what was left of his tongue. He could only sulk now, breathing hard and grunting when the pain was unbearable. One thought comforted him, and one only: Far back in his bulk he knew of a thin place in his hide,—so thin, owing to a dip in the contour of the hill,—that but a few yards of overlying rock and earth lay between it and the free air.

Here his tormentors had stopped; why, he could not tell until he began to keep tally of what had passed his mouth: The long trains of cars had ceased; so had the snorting locomotives; so had the steam drills. Curious-looking boxes and kegs were being passed in, none of which ever came back; men with rolls of paper on which were zigzag markings stumbled inside, stayed an hour and stumbled out again; these men wore no lamps in their hats and were better dressed than the others. Then a huge wooden drum wrapped with wire was left overnight outside his lips and unrolled the next morning, every yard of it being stretched so far down his throat that he lost all track of it.

On the following morning work of every kind ceased; not a man with a lamp anywhere—and these The Beast hated most; that is, none that he could see or feel. After an hour or more the head man arrived and with two others went inside. The head man was tall and fair, had gray side whiskers and wore a slouch hat; the second man was straight and well built, with a boyish face tanned by the weather. The third man was short and fat: this one carried a plan. Behind the three walked five other men.

All were talking.

"The dip is to the eastward," the head man said. "The uplift ought to clear things so we won't have to handle the stuff twice. Hard to rig derricks on that slope. Let's have powder enough, anyhow, Bolton."

The fat man nodded and consulted his plan with the help of his eye-glasses. Then the three men and the five men passed in out of hearing.

The Beast was sure now. The men were going to blow out the side of the hill where his hide was thinnest so as to make room for an air-shaft.

An hour later a gang in charge of a red-shirted foreman who were shifting a section of toy track on the "fill" felt the earth shake under them. Then came a dull roar followed by a cloud of yellow smoke mounting skyward from an opening high up on the hillside. Flashing through this cloud leaped tongues of flame intermingled with rocks and splintered trees. From the tunnel's mouth streamed a thin, steel-colored gas that licked its way along the upper edges of the opening and was lost in the underbrush fringing its upper lip.

"What's that?" muttered the red-shirted foreman—"that ain't no blast—My God!—they're blowed up!"

He sprang on a car and waved his arms with all his might: "Drop them shovels! Git to the tunnel, every man of ye: here,—this way!" and he plunged on, the men scrambling after him.

The Beast was a magnet now, drawing everything to its mouth. Gangs of men swarmed up the side of the hill; stumbling, falling; picking themselves up only to stumble and fall again. Down the railroad tracks swept a repair squad who had been straightening a switch, their foreman in the lead. From out of the cabins bareheaded women and children ran screaming.

The end of the "fill" nearest the tunnel was now black with people; those nearest to the opening were shielding their faces from the deadly gas. The roar of voices was incessant; some shouted from sheer excitement; others broke into curses, shaking their fists at The Beast; blaming the management. All about stood shivering women with white faces, some chewing the corners of their shawls in their agony.

Then a cry clearer than the others soared above the heads of the terror-stricken mob as a rescue gang made ready to enter the tunnel:

"Water! Water! Get a bucket, some of ye! Ye can't live in that smoke yet! Tie your mouth up if you're going in! Wet it, damn ye!—do ye want to be choked stiff!"

A shrill voice now cut the air.

"It's the boss and the clerk and Mr. Bolton that's catched!"

"Yes—and a gang from the big shanty; I seen 'em goin' in," shouted back the red-shirted foreman.

The volunteers—big, brawny men, who, warned by the foreman, had been binding wet cloths over their mouths, now sprang forward, peering into the gloom. Then the sound of footsteps was heard—nearer—nearer. Groping through the blue haze stumbled a man, his shirt sleeve shielding his mouth. On he came, staggering from side to side, reached the edge of the mouth and pitched head-foremost as the fresh air filled his lungs. A dozen hands dragged him clear. It was Bolton.

His clothes were torn and scorched; his face blackened; his left hand dripping blood. Two of the shanty gang were next hauled out and laid on the back of an overturned dirt car. They had been near the mouth when the explosion came, and throwing themselves flat had crawled toward the opening.

Bolton was still unconscious, but the two shanty men gasped out the terrible facts: "The boss and the clerk, was jes' starting out when everything let go"; they choked; "ther' ain't nothing left of the other men. We passed the boss and the clerk; they was blowed agin a car; the boss was stove up, the clerk was crawlin' toward him. They'll never git out alive: none on 'em. We fellers was jes' givin' up when we see the daylight and heared you a-yellin'."

A hush now fell on the mass of people, broken by the piercing shriek of a woman,—the wife of a shanty man. She would have rushed in had not some one held her.

Bolton sat up, gazing stupidly about him. Part of the story of the escaped men had reached his ears. He struggled to his feet and staggerd toward the opening of the tunnel. The red-shirted foreman caught him under the armpits and whirled him back.

"That ain't no place for you!" he cried—"I'll go!"

A muffled cry was heard. It came from a bystander lying flat on his belly inside the mouth: he had crawled in as far as he could.

"Here they come!"

New footfalls grew distinct, whether one or more the listeners could not make out. Under the shouts of the red-shirted foreman to give them air, the throng fell back.

Out of the grimy smoke two figures slowly loomed up; one carried the other on his back; whether shanty men or not, no one could tell.

The crowd, no longer controlled by the foreman, surged about the opening. Ready hands were held out, but the man carrying his comrade waved them aside and staggered on, one hand steadying his load, the other hanging loose. The big foreman started to rush in, but stopped. Something in the burdened man's eye had checked him, it was as if a team were straining up a steep hill, making any halt fatal.

"It's the boss and the clerk!" shouted the foreman. "Fall back, men,—fall back, damn ye!"

The man came straight on, reached the lips of the opening, lunged heavily to the right, tried to steady his burden and fell headlong.



CHAPTER XV



The street lamps were already lighted on the following afternoon—when Ruth, with Peter and Miss Felicia, alighted at the small station of Corklesville. All through the day she had gone over in her mind the words of the despatch:

Explosion in tunnel. MacFarlane hurt—serious—will recover. Break news gently to daughter.

Bolton Asst. Engineer

Other despatches had met the party on the way down; one saying, "No change," signed by the trained nurse, and a second one from Bolton in answer to one of Peter's: "Three men killed—others escaped. MacFarlane's operation successful. Explosion premature."

Their anxiety only increased: Why hadn't Jack telegraphed? Why leave it to Bolton? Why was there no word of him,—and yet how could Bolton have known that Peter was with Ruth, except from young Breen. In this mortal terror Peter had wired from Albany: "Is Breen hurt?" but no answer had been received at Poughkeepsie. There had not been time for it, perhaps, but still there was no answer, nor had his name been mentioned in any of the other telegrams. That in itself was ominous.

This same question Ruth had asked herself a dozen times. Jack was to have had charge of the battery—he had told her so. Was he one of the killed?—why didn't somebody tell her?—why hadn't Mr. Bolton said something?—why—why—Then the picture of her father's mangled body would rise before her and all thought of Jack pass out of her mind.

As the train rolled into the grimy station she was the first to spring from the car; she knew the way best, and the short cut from the station to where her father lay. Her face was drawn; her eyes bloodshot from restrained tears—all the color gone from her cheeks.

"You bring Aunt Felicia, Uncle Peter,—and the bags;—I will go ahead," she said, tying her veil so as to shield her face. "No, I won't wait for anything."

News of Ruth's expected arrival had reached the village, and the crowd at the station had increased. On its inner circle, close to a gate leading from the platform, stood a young man in a slouch hat, with his left wrist bandaged. The arm had hung in a sling until the train rolled in, then the silk support had been slipped and hidden in his pocket. Under the slouch hat, the white edge of a bandage was visible which the wearer vainly tried to conceal by pulling the hat further on his head,—this subterfuge also concealed a dark scar on his temple. Whenever the young man pressed closer to the gate, the crowd would fall back as if to give him room. Now and then one would come up, grab his well hand and pat his shoulder approvingly. He seemed to be as much an object of interest as the daughter of the injured boss.

When Ruth gained the gate the wounded man laid his fingers on her gloved wrist. The girl started back, peered into his face, and uttered a cry of relief.

"Mr. Breen!" For one wild moment a spirit of overwhelming joy welled up in her heart and shone out of her eyes. Thank God he was not dead!

"Yes, Miss Ruth,—what is left of me. I wanted to see you as soon as you reached here. You must not be alarmed about your father." The voice did not sound like Jack's.

"Is he worse? Tell me quick!" she exclaimed, the old fear confronting her.

"No. He is all right," he wheezed, "and is going to get well. His left arm is broken and his head badly cut, but he is out of danger. The doctor told me so an hour ago."

"And you?" she pleaded, clinging to his proffered hand.

"Oh! I am all right, too. The smoke got into my throat so I croak, but that is nothing. Why, Mr. Grayson,—and Miss Felicia! I am so glad, Miss Ruth, that you did not have to come alone! This way, everybody."

Without other words they hurried into the carriage, driving like mad for the cottage, a mile away; all the worn look gone from Ruth's face.

"And you're not hurt, my boy?" asked Peter in a trembling voice—Jack's well hand in his own.

"No, only a few scratches, sir; that's all. Bolton's hand's in a bad way, though; lose two of his fingers, I'm afraid."

"And how did you escape?"

"I don't know. I got out the best way I could. First thing I knew I was lying on the grass and some one was pouring water over my head; then they got me home and put me to bed."

"And MacFarlane?"

"Oh, he came along with me. I had to help him some."

Peter heaved a sigh of relief, then he asked:

"How did it happen?"

"Nobody knows. One of the shanty men might have dropped a box of fulminates. Poor fellow,—he never knew; they could find nothing of him," Jack whispered behind his hand so Ruth would not hear.

"But when did you get out of bed?" continued Peter. He was less anxious now.

Jack looked at Ruth and again lowered his voice; the sound of the carriage preventing its hoarse notes from reaching her ears.

"About half an hour ago, sir; they don't know I have gone, but I didn't want anybody to frighten Miss Ruth. I don't look so bad, do I? I fixed myself up as well as I could. I have got on Bolton's hat; I couldn't get mine over the bandages. My wrist is the worst—sprained badly, the doctor says."

If Ruth heard she made no answer, nor did she speak during the ride. Now and then she would gaze out of the window and once her fingers tightened on Miss Felicia's arm as she passed in full view of the "fill" with the gaping mouth of the tunnel beyond. Miss Felicia was occupied in watching Jack. In fact, she had not taken her eyes from him since they entered the carriage. She saw what neither Peter nor Ruth had seen;—that the boy was suffering intensely from hidden wounds and that the strain was so great he was verging on a collapse. No telling what these foolish Southerners will do, she said to herself, when a woman is to be looked after,—but she said nothing of all this to Ruth.

When the carriage stopped and Ruth with a spring leaped from her seat and bounded upstairs to her father's bedside, Miss Felicia holding Jack's hand, her eyes reading the boy's face, turned and said to Peter:

"Now you take him home where he belongs and put him to bed; and don't you let him get up until I see him. No—" she continued in a more decided tone, in answer to Jack's protest—"I won't have it. You go to bed just as I tell you—you can hardly stand now."

"Perhaps I had better, Miss Felicia. I am a little shaky," replied Jack, in a faint voice, and the carriage kept on its way to Mrs. Hicks's leaving the good lady on MacFarlane's porch.

MacFarlane was asleep when Ruth, trembling with excitement, reached the house. Outside the sick room, lighted by a single taper, she met the nurse whose few hurried words, spoken with authority, calmed her, as Jack had been unable to do, and reassured her mind. "Compound fracture of the right arm, Miss," she whispered, "and badly bruised about the head, as they all were. Poor Mr. Breen was the worst."

Ruth looked at her in astonishment. That was why he had not lifted his hat, she thought to herself, as she tiptoed into the sick room and sank to her knees beside her father's bed.

The injured man opened his eyes, and his free hand moved slowly till it rested on his daughter's head.

"I got an awful crack, Ruth, but I am all right now. Too bad to bring you home. Who came with you?"

"Aunt Felicia and Uncle Peter," she whispered as she stroked his uninjured hand.

"Mighty good of them—just like old Peter. Send the old boy up—I want to see him."

Ruth made no answer; her heart was too full. That her father was alive was enough.

"I'm not pretty to look at, am I, child, but I'll pull out; I have been hurt before—had a leg broken once in the Virginia mountains when you were a baby. The smoke was the worst; I swallowed a lot of it; and I am sore now all over my chest. Poor Bolton's badly crippled, I hear—and Breen—they've told you about Breen, haven't they, daughter?" His voice rose as he mentioned the boy's name.

Ruth shook her head.

"Well, I wouldn't be here but for him! He's a plucky boy. I will never forget him for it; you mustn't either," he continued in a more positive tone.

The nurse now moved to the bed.

"I would not talk any more, Mr. MacFarlane. Miss Ruth is going to be at home now right along and she will hear the story."

"Well, I won't, nurse, if you don't want me to—but they won't be able to tell her what a fix we were in—I remember everything up to the time Breen dragged me from under the dirt car. I knew right away what had happened and what we had to do; I've been there before, but—"

"There,—that will do, Mr. MacFarlane," interrupted the nurse. "Come, Miss Ruth, suppose you go to your room for a while."

The girl rose to her feet.

"You can come back as soon as I fix your father for the night." She pointed significantly to the patient's head, whispering, "He must not get excited."

"Yes, dear daddy—I will come back just as soon as I can get the dust out of my hair and get brushed up a little," cried Ruth bravely, in the effort to hide her anxiety, "and then Aunt Felicia is downstairs."

Once outside she drew the nurse, who had followed her, to the window so as to be out of hearing of the patient and then asked breathlessly:

"What did Mr. Breen do?"

"I don't know exactly, but everybody is talking about him."

At this moment Miss Felicia arrived at the top of the stairs: she had heard Ruth's question and had caught the dazed expression on the girl's face.

"I will tell you, my dear, what he did, for I have heard every word of it from the servants. The blast went off before he and your father had reached the opening of the tunnel. They left your father for dead, then John Breen crawled back on his hands and knees through the dreadful smoke until he reached him, lifted him up on his shoulders and carried him out alive. That's what he did; and he is a big, fine, strong, noble fellow, and I am going to tell him so the moment I get my eyes on him. And that is not all. He got out of bed this afternoon, though he could hardly stand, and covered up all his bruises and his broken wrist so you couldn't see them, and then he limped down to the station so you would get the truth about your father and not be frightened. And now he is in a dead faint."

Ruth's eyes flamed and the color left her cheeks. She stretched out both hands as if to keep from falling.

"Saved daddy!" she gasped—"Carried him out on—Oh! Aunt Felicia!—and I have been so mean! To think he got up out of bed and—and—" Everything swam before her eyes.

Miss Felicia sprang forward and caught her in her arms.

"Come!—none of this, Child. Pull yourself together right away. Get her some water, nurse,—she has stood all she can. There now, dearie—" Ruth's head was on her breast now. "There—there—Such a poor darling, and so many things coming all at once. There, darling, put your head on my shoulder and cry it all out."

The girl sobbed on, the wrinkled hand patting her cheek.

"Oh, but you don't know, aunty—" she crooned.

"Yes, but I do—you blessed child. I know it all."

"And won't somebody go and help him? He is all alone, he told me so."

"Uncle Peter is with him, dearie.'"

"Yes,—but some one who can—" she straightened up—"I will go, aunty—I will go now."

"You will do nothing of the kind, you little goose; you will stay just where you are."

"Well, won't you go, then? Oh, please—please—aunty." Peter's bald head now rose above the edge of the banisters. Miss Felicia motioned him to go back, but Ruth heard his step and raised her tear-drenched face half hidden in her dishevelled hair.

"Oh, Uncle Peter, is Jack—is Mr. Breen—"

Miss Felicia's warning face behind Ruth's own, for once reached Peter in time.

"In his bed and covered up, and his landlady, Mrs. Hicks, sitting beside him," responded Peter in his cheeriest tones.

"But he fainted from pain—and—"

"Yes, but that's all over now, my dear," broke in Miss Felicia.

"But you will go, anyhow—won't you, aunty?" pleaded Ruth.

"Certainly—just as soon as I put you to bed, and that is just where you have got to go this very minute," and she led the overwrought trembling girl into her room and shut the door.

Peter stood for an instant looking about him, his mind taking in the situation. Ruth was being cared for now, and so was MacFarlane—the white cap and apron of the noiseless nurse passing in and out of the room in which he lay, assured him of that. Bolton, too, in the room next to Jack's, was being looked after by his sister who had just arrived. He, too, was fairly comfortable, though a couple of his fingers had been shortened. But there was nobody to look after Jack—no father, mother, sister—nobody. To send for the boy's uncle, or Corinne, or his aunt, was out of the question, none of them having had more than a word with him since his departure. Yet Jack needed attention. The doctor had just pulled him out of one fainting spell only to have him collapse again when his coat was taken off, and the bandages were loosened. He was suffering greatly and was by no means out of danger.

If for the next hour or two there was anything to be done at MacFarlane's, Peter was ready to do it, but this accomplished, he would shoulder his bag and camp out for the night beside the boy's bed. He had come, indeed, to tell Felicia so, and he meant to sleep there whatever her protests. He was preparing himself for her objections, when she reentered the room.

"How is young Breen?" Miss Felicia asked in a whisper, closing the door behind her. She had put Ruth to bed, where she had again given way to an uncontrollable fit of weeping.

"Pretty weak. The doctor is with him now."

"What did the fool get up for?" She did not mean to surrender too quickly about Jack despite his heroism—not to Peter, at any rate. Then, again, she half suspected that Ruth's tears were equally divided between the rescuer and the rescued.

"He couldn't help it, I suppose," answered Peter, with a gleam in his eyes—"he was born that way."

"Born! What stuff, Peter—no man of any common-sense would have—"

"I quite agree with you, my dear—no man except a gentleman. There is no telling what one of that kind might do under such circumstances." And with a wave of his hand and a twinkle in his merry scotch-terrier eyes, the old fellow disappeared below the handrail.

Miss Felicia leaned over the banisters:

"Peter, PETER," she called after him, "where are you going?"

"To stay all night with Jack."

"Well, that's the most sensible thing I have heard of yet. Will you take him a message from me?"

Peter looked up: "Yes, Felicia, what is it?"

"Give him my love."



CHAPTER XVI



Miss Felicia kept her promise to Ruth. Before that young woman, indeed, tired out with anxiety, had opened her beautiful eyes the next morning and pushed back her beautiful hair from her beautiful face—and it was still beautiful, despite all the storms it had met and weathered, the energetic, old lady had presented herself at the front door of Mrs. Hicks's Boarding Hotel (it was but a step from MacFarlane's) and had sent her name to the young man in the third floor back.

A stout person, with a head of adjustable hair held in place by a band of black velvet skewered by a gold pin, the whole surmounted by a flaring mob-cap of various hues and dyes, looked Miss Felicia all over and replied in a dubious tone:

"He's had a bad mash-up, and I don't think—"

"I am quite aware of it, my dear madam, or I would not be here. Now, please show me the way to Mr. Breen's room—my brother was here last night and—"

"Oh, the bald-headed gentleman?" exclaimed Mrs. Hicks. "Such a dear, kind man; and it was as much as I could do to get him to bed and he a—"

But Miss Felicia was already inside the sitting-room, her critical eyes noting its bare, forbidding furnishing and appointment—she had not yet let down her skirts, the floor not being inviting. As each article passed in review—the unsteady rocking-chairs upholstered in haircloth and protected by stringy tidies, the disconsolate, almost bottomless lounge, fly-specked brass clock and mantel ornaments, she could not but recall the palatial entrance, drawing-room, and boudoir into which Parkins had ushered her on that memorable afternoon when she had paid a visit to Mrs. Arthur Breen—(her "last visit" the old lady would say with a sly grimace at Holker, who had never forgiven "that pirate, Breen," for robbing Gilbert of his house).

"And this is what this idiot has got in exchange," she said to herself as she peered into the dining-room beyond, with its bespattered table-cloth flanked by cheap china plates and ivory napkin rings—the castors mounting guard at either end.

The entrance of the lady with the transferable hair cut short her revery.

"Mr. Breen says come up, ma'am," she said in a subdued voice. It was astonishing how little time it took for Miss Felicia's personality to have its effect.

Up the uncarpeted stairs marched the great lady, down an equally bare hall lined on either side by bedroom doors, some marked by unblacked shoes others by tin trays holding fragments of late or early breakfasts, the flaring cap obsequiously pointing the way until the two had reached a door at the end of the corridor.

"Now I won't bother you any more," said Miss Felicia. "Thank you very much. Are you in here Mr. Breen?" she called in a cheery voice as she pushed open the door, and advanced to his bedside:—"Oh, you poor fellow! Oh, I AM so sorry!"

The boy lay on a cot-bed pushed close to the wall. His face was like chalk; his eyes deep set in his head; his scalp one criss-cross of bandages, and his right hand and wrist a misshapen lump of cotton wadding and splints.

"No, don't move. Why, you did not look as bad as this yesterday," she added in sympathetic tones, patting his free hand with her own, her glance wandering over the cramped little room with its meagre appointments.

Jack smiled faintly and a light gleamed in his eyes. The memory of yesterday evidently brought no regrets.

"I dared not look any other way," he answered faintly; "I was so afraid of alarming Miss Ruth." Then after a pause in which the smile and the gleam flickered over his pain-tortured face, he added in a more determined voice: "I am glad I went, though the doctor was furious. He says it was the worst thing I could have done—and thought I ought to have had sense enough to—But don't let's talk any more about it, Miss Felicia. It was so good of you to come. Mr. Grayson has just left. You'd think he was a woman, he is so gentle and tender. But I'll be around in a day or two, and as soon as I can get on my feet and look less like a scarecrow than I do, I am coming over to see you and Miss Ruth and—yes, and UNCLE PETER—" Miss Felicia arched her eyebrows: "Oh, you needn't look!—that's what I am going to call him after this; we settled all that last night."

A smile overspread Miss Felicia's face. "Uncle Peter, is it? And I suppose you will be calling me Aunt Felicia next?"

Jack turned his eyes: "That was just what I was trying to screw up my courage to do. Please let me, won't you?" Again Miss Felicia lifted her eyebrows, but she did not say she would.

"And Ruth—what do you intend to call that young lady? Of course, without her permission, as that seems to be the fashion." And the old lady's eyes danced in restrained merriment.

The sufferer's face became suddenly grave; for an instant he did not answer, then he said slowly:

"But what can I call her except Miss Ruth?"

Miss Felicia laughed. Nothing was so delicious as a love affair which she could see into. This boy's heart was an open book. Besides, this kind of talk would take his mind from his miseries.

"Oh, but I am not so sure of that," she rejoined, in an encouraging tone.

A light broke out in Jack's eyes: "You mean that she WOULD let me call her—call her Ruth?"

"I don't mean anything of the kind, you foolish fellow. You have got to ask her yourself; but there's no telling what she would not do for you now, she's so grateful to you for saving her father's life."

"But I did not," he exclaimed, an expression as of acute pain crossing his brows. "I only helped him along. But she must not be grateful. I don't like the word. Gratitude hasn't got anything to do with—" he did not finish the sentence.

"But you DID save his life, and you know it, and I just love you for it," she insisted, ignoring his criticism as she again smoothed his hand. "You did a fine, noble act, and I am proud of you and I came to tell you so." Then she added suddenly: "You received my message last night, didn't you? Now, don't tell me that that good-for-nothing Peter forgot it."

"No, he gave it to me, and it was so kind of you."

"Well, then I forgive him. And now," here she made a little salaam with both her hands—"now you have Ruth's message."

"I have what?" he asked in astonishment.

"Ruth's message." She still kept her face straight although her lips quivered with merriment.

Jack tried to lift his head: "What is her message?" he asked with expectant eyes—perhaps she had sent him a letter!

Miss Felicia tapped her bosom with her forefinger.

"ME!" she cried, "I am her message. She was so worried last night when she found out how ill you were that I promised her to come and comfort you; that is why it is ME. And now, don't you think you ought to get down on your knees and thank her? Why, you don't seem a bit pleased!"

"And she sent you to me—because—because—she was GRATEFUL that I saved her father's life?" he asked in a bewildered tone.

"Of course—why shouldn't she be; is there anything else you can give her she would value as much as her father's life, you conceited young Jackanapes?"

She had the pin through the butterfly now and was watching it squirm; not maliciously—she was never malicious. He would get over the prick, she knew. It might help him in the end, really.

"No, I suppose not," he replied simply, as he sank back on his pillow and turned his bruised face toward the wall.

For some moments he lay in deep thought. The last half-hour in the arbor under the palms came back to him; the tones of Ruth's voice; the casual way in which she returned his devouring glance. She didn't love him; never had loved him; wouldn't ever love him. Anybody could carry another fellow out on his back; was done every day by firemen and life-savers,—everybody, in fact, who happened to be around when their services were most needed. Grateful! Of course the rescued people and their friends were grateful until they forgot all about it, as they were sure to do the next day, or week, or month. Gratitude was not what he wanted. It was love. That was the way he felt; that was the way he would always feel. He who loved every hair on Ruth's beautiful head, loved her wonderful hands, loved her darling feet, loved the very ground on which she walked "Gratitude!" eh! That was the word his uncle had used the day he slammed the door of his private office in his face. "Common gratitude, damn you, Jack, ought to put more sense in your head," as though one ought to have been "grateful" for a seat at a gambling table and two rooms in a house supported by its profits. Garry had said "gratitude," too, and so had Corinne, and all the rest of them. Peter had never talked gratitude; dear Peter, who had done more for him than anybody in the world except his own father. Peter wanted his love if he wanted anything, and that was what he was going to give him—big, broad, all-absorbing LOVE. And he did love him. Even his wrinkled hands, so soft and white, and his glistening head, and his dabs of gray whiskers, and his sweet, firm, human mouth were precious to him. Peter—his friend, his father, his comrade! Could he ever insult him by such a mean, cowardly feeling as gratitude? And was the woman he loved as he loved nothing else in life—was she—was Ruth going to belittle their relations with the same substitute? It was a big pin, that which Miss Felicia had impaled him on, and it is no wonder the poor fluttering wings were nigh exhausted in the struggle!

Relief came at last.

"And now what shall I tell her?" asked Miss Felicia. "She worries more over you than she does over her father; she can get hold of him any minute, but you won't be presentable for a week. Come, what shall I tell her?"

Jack shifted his shoulders so that he could move the easier and with less pain, and raised himself on his well elbow. There was no use of his hoping any more; she had evidently sent Miss Felicia to end the matter with one of her polite phrases,—a weapon which she, of all women, knew so well how to use.

"Give Miss Ruth my kindest regards," he said in a low voice, still husky from the effects of the smoke and the strain of the last half-hour—"and say how thankful I am for her gratitude, and—No,—don't tell her anything of the kind. I don't know what you are to tell her." The words seemed to die in his throat.

"But she will ask me, and I have got to say something. Come,—out with it." Her eyes were still on his face; not a beat of his wings or a squirm of his body had she missed.

"Well just say how glad I am she is at home again and that her father is getting on so well, and tell her I will be up and around in a day or two, and that I am not a bit worse off for going to the station yesterday."

"Anything else?"

"No,—unless you can think of something."

"And if I do shall I add it?"

"Yes."

"Oh,—then I know exactly what to do,—it will be something like this: 'Please, Ruth, take care of your precious self, and don't be worried about me or anything else, and remember that every minute I am away from you is misery, for I love you to distraction and—'"

"Oh, Miss Felicia!"

"No—none of your protests, sir!" she laughed. "That is just what I am going to tell her. And now don't you dare to move till Peter comes back," and with a toss of her aristocratic head the dear lady left the room, closing the door behind her.

And so our poor butterfly was left flat against the wall—all his flights ended. No more roaming over honeysuckles, drinking in the honey of Ruth's talk; no more soaring up into the blue, the sunshine of hope dazzling his wings. It made no difference what Miss Felicia might say to Ruth. It was what she had said to HIM which made him realize the absurdity of all his hopes. Everything that he had longed for, worked for, dreamed about, was over now—the long walks in the garden, her dear hand in his, even the song of the choir boys, and the burst of joyous music as they passed out of the church door only to enter their own for life. All this was gone—never to return—never had existed, in fact, except in his own wild imagination. And once more the disheartened boy turned his tired pain-racked face toward the bare wall.

Miss Felicia tripped downstairs with an untroubled air, extended two fingers to Mrs. Hicks, and without more ado passed out into the morning air. No thought of the torment she had inflicted affected the dear woman. What were pins made for except to curb the ambitious wings of flighty young men who were soaring higher than was good for them. She would let him know that Ruth was a prize not to be too easily won, especially by penniless young gentlemen, however brave and heroic they might be.

Hardly had she crossed the dreary village street encumbered with piles of half-melted snow and mud, than she espied Peter picking his way toward her, his silk hat brushed to a turn, his gray surtout buttoned close, showing but the edge of his white silk muffler, his carefully rolled umbrella serving as a divining rod the better to detect the water holes. No one who met him and looked into his fresh, rosy face, or caught the merry twinkle of his eyes, would ever have supposed he had been pouring liniment over broken arms and bandaged fingers until two o'clock in the morning of the night before. It had only been when Bolton's sister had discovered an empty "cell," as Jack called the bedroom next to his, that he had abandoned his intention of camping out on Jack's disheartened lounge, and had retired like a gentleman carrying with him all his toilet articles, ready to be set out in the morning.

Long before that time he had captured everybody in the place: from Mrs. Hicks, who never dreamed that such a well of tenderness over suffering could exist in an old fellow's heart, down to the freckled-faced boy who came for his muddy shoes and who, after a moment's talk with Peter as to how they should be polished, retired later in the firm belief that they belonged to "a gent way up in G," as he expressed it, he never having waited on "the likes of him before." As to Bolton, he thought he was the "best ever," and as to his prim, patient sister who had closed her school to be near her brother—she declared to Mrs. Hicks five minutes after she had laid her eyes on him, that Mr. Breen's uncle was "just too dear for anything,"—to which the lady with the movable hair and mob-cap not only agreed, but added the remark of her own, "that folks like him was a sight better than the kind she was a-gettin'."

All these happenings of the night and early hours of this bright, beautiful morning—and it was bright and sunny overhead despite the old fellow's precautionary umbrella—had helped turn out the spick and span gentleman who was now making his way carefully over the unpaved road which stood for Corklesville's principal street.

Miss Felicia saw him first.

"Oh! there you are!" she cried before he could raise his eyes. "Did you ever see anything so disgraceful as this crossing—not a plank—nothing. No—get out of my way, Peter; you will just upset me, and I would rather help myself."

In reply Peter, promptly ignoring her protest, stepped in front of her, poked into several fraudulent solidities covering unfathomable depths, found one hard enough to bear the weight of Miss Felicia's dainty shoe—it was about as long as a baby's hand—and holding out his own said, in his most courtly manner:

"Be very careful now, my dear: put your foot on mine; so! now give me your hand and jump. There—that's it." To see Peter help a lady across a muddy street, Holker Morris always said, was a lesson in all the finer virtues. Sir Walter was a bungler beside him. But then Miss Felicia could also have passed muster as the gay gallant's companion.

And just here the Scribe remarks, parenthetically, that there is nothing that shows a woman's refinement more clearly than the way she crosses a street.

Miss Felicia, for instance, would no more have soiled the toes of her shoes in a puddle than a milk-white pussy would have dampened its feet in the splash of an overturned bowl: a calm survey up and down; a taking in of the dry and wet spots; a careful gathering up of her skirts, and over skimmed the slender, willowy old lady with a one—two—and three—followed by a stamp of her absurd feet and the shaking out of ruffle and pleat. When a woman strides through mud without a shiver because she has plenty of dry shoes and good ones at home, there are other parts of her make-up, inside and out, that may want a looking after.

Miss Felicia safely landed on the dry and comparatively clean sidewalk, Peter put the question he had been framing in his mind since he first caught sight of that lady picking her way among the puddles.

"Well, how is he now?"

"His head, or his heart?" she asked with a knowing smile, dropping her still spotless skirts. "Both are broken; the last into smithereens. It is hopeless. He will never be any better. Oh, Peter, what a mess you have made of things!"

"What have I done?" he laughed.

"Got these two people dead in love with each other,—both of them—Ruth is just as bad—and no more chance of their ever being married than you or I. Perfectly silly, Peter, and I have always told you so—and now you will have to take the consequences."

"Beautiful—beautiful!" chuckled Peter; "everything is coming my way. I was sure of Jack, for he told me so, but Ruth puzzled me. Did she tell you she loved him?"

"No, stupid, of course she did not. But have I not a pair of eyes in my head? What do you suppose I got up for this morning at such an unearthly hour and went over to—Oh, such an awful place!—to see that idiot? Just to tell him I was sorry? Not a bit of it! I went to find out what was going on, and now I know; and what is to become of it all nobody can tell. Here is her father with every penny he has in the world in this work—so Holker tells me—and here are a lot of damages for dead men and Heaven knows what else; and there is Jack Breen with not a penny to his name except his month's wages; and here is Ruth who can marry anybody she chooses, bewitched by that boy—and I grant you she has every reason for he is as brave as he can be, and what is better he is a gentleman. And there lies Henry MacFarlane blind as a bat as to what is going on! Oh!—really, Peter, there cannot be anything more absurd."

During the outbreak Peter stood leaning on his umbrella, a smile playing over his smooth-shaven face, his eyes snapping as if at some inwardly suppressed fun. These were the kind of outbursts Peter loved. It was only when Felicia was about to come over to your way of thinking that she talked like this. It was her way of hearing the other side.

"Dreadful!—dreadful!" sighed Peter, looking the picture of woe. "Love in a garret—everybody in rags,—one meal a day—awful situation! Something's got to be done at once. I'll begin by taking up a collection this very day. In the meantime, Felicia, I'll just keep on to Jack's and see how his arm's getting on and his head. As to his heart,—I'll talk to Ruth and see—"

"Are you crazy, Peter? You will do nothing of the kind. If you do, I will—"

But Peter, his hat in the air, was now out of hearing. When he reached the mud line he turned, drew his umbrella as if from an imaginary scabbard, made a military salute, and, with a suppressed gurgle in his throat, kept on to Jack's room.

Somehow the sunshine had crept into the old fellow's veins this morning. None of Miss Felicia's pins for him!

Ruth, from her place by the sitting-room window, had seen the two talking and had opened the front door, before Miss Felicia's hand touched the bell. She had already subjected Peter to a running fire of questions while he was taking his coffee and thus had the latest intelligence down to the moment when Peter turned low Jack's light and had tucked him in. He was asleep when Peter had peered into his cramped room early this morning, and the bulletin therefore could go no further.

"And how is he, aunty?" Ruth asked in a breathless tone before the front door could be closed.

"Getting on splendidly, my dear. Slept pretty well. It is a dreadful place for any one to be in, but I suppose he is accustomed to it by this time."

"And is he no worse for coming to meet us, Aunt Felicia?" Ruth asked, her voice betraying her anxiety. She had relieved the old lady of her cloak now, and had passed one arm around her slender waist.

"No, he doesn't seem to be, dearie. Tired, of course—and it may keep him in bed a day or two longer, but it won't make any difference in his getting well. He will be out in a week or so."

Ruth paused for a moment and then asked in a hesitating way, all her sympathy in her eyes:

"And I don't suppose there is anybody to look after him, is there?"

"Oh, yes, plenty: Mrs. Hicks seems a kind, motherly person, and then Mr. Bolton's sister runs in and out." It was marvellous how little interest the dear woman took in the condition of the patient. Again the girl paused. She was sorry now she had not braved everything and gone with her.

"And did he send me any message, aunty?" This came quite as a matter of form—merely to learn all the details.

"Oh, yes,—I forgot: he told me to tell you how glad he was to hear your father was getting well," replied Miss Felicia searching the mantel for a book she had placed there.

Ruth bit her lips and a certain dull feeling crept about her heart. Jack, with his broken arm and bruised head rose before her. Then another figure supplanted it.

"And what sort of a girl is that Miss Bolton?" There was no curiosity—merely for information. "Uncle Peter was so full of her brother and how badly he had been hurt he hardly mentioned her name"

"I did not see her very well; she was just coming out of her brother's room, and the hall was dark. Oh, here's my book—I knew I had left it here."

"Pretty?" continued Ruth, in a slightly anxious tone.

"No,—I should say not," replied the old lady, moving to the door.

"Then you don't think there is anything I can do?" Ruth called after her.

"Not now."

Ruth picked up Miss Felicia's wrap from the chair where that lady had thrown it, mounted the stairs, peered from between the pots of geraniums screening a view of the street with the Hicks Hotel dominating one corner, wondered which window along the desolate front gave Jack light and air, and with whispered instructions to the nurse to be sure and let her know when her father awoke, shut herself in her room.

As for the horrible old ogre who had made all the trouble, nipping off buds, skewering butterflies and otherwise disporting herself after the manner of busybodies who are eternally and forever poking their thin, pointed noses into what doesn't concern them, no hot, scalding tears, the Scribe regrets to say, dimmed her knowing eyes, nor did any unbidden sigh leap from her old heart. Foolish young people ought to thank her really for what she had done—what she would still try to do—and they would when they were a year older.

Poor, meddling Miss Felicia! Have you forgotten that night thirty years ago when you stood in a darkened room facing a straight, soldierly looking man, and listened to the slow dropping of words that scalded your heart like molten metal? Have you forgotten, too, the look on his handsome face when he uttered his protest at the persistent intermeddling of another, and the square of his broad shoulders as he disappeared through the open door never to return again?



CHAPTER XVII



Some of the sunshine that had helped dry the muddy road, making possible the path between Jack's abode and MacFarlane's hired villa—where there was only room for Miss Felicia, Peter still occupying his cell at Mrs. Hicks's, but taking his meals with Ruth, so that he could be within call of MacFarlane when needed—some of this same sunshine, I say, may have been responsible for the temporary drying up of Ruth's tears and the establishing of various ways of communication between two hearts that had for some days been floundering in the deeps. Or, perhaps, the rebound may have been due to the fact that Peter had whispered something in Jack's ear, or that Ruth had overheard Miss Felicia praising Jack's heroism to her father—it was common talk everywhere—or it may have been that the coming of spring which always brings hope and cheer—making old into new, may have led to the general lighting up of the gloom that had settled over the house of MacFarlane and its dependents; but certain it is that such was the case.

MacFarlane began by taking a sudden change for the better—so decided a change that he was out of his room and dressed on the fifth day (although half his coat hid his broken arm, tightly bandaged to his side). He had even talked as far as the geraniums in the window, through which he could not only see Jack's hotel, but the big "earth fill" and mouth of The Beast beyond.

Then Bolton surprised everybody by appearing outdoors, his hand alone in a sling. What was left of the poor shanty men, too, had been buried, the dreadful newspaper articles had ceased, and work was again in full blast.

Jack, to be sure, was still in his room, having swallowed more gas and smoke than the others, badly scorching his insides, as he had panted under the weight of MacFarlane's body. The crisis, however, brought on by his imprudence in meeting Ruth at the station, had passed, and even he was expected to be out in a few days.

As for Miss Felicia, although she had blown hot and blown cold on Ruth's heart, until that delicate instrument stood at zero one day and at fever heat the next, she had, on the whole, kept up an equable temperature, and meant to do so until she shook the dust of Corklesville from her dainty feet and went back to the clean, moist bricks of her garden.

And as for Peter! Had he not been a continuous joy; cheering everybody; telling MacFarlane funny stories until that harassed invalid laughed himself, unconscious of the pain to his arm; bringing roses for the prim, wizened-up Miss Bolton, that she might have a glimpse of something fresh and alive while she sat by her brother's bed. And last, and by no means least, had he not the morning he had left for New York, his holiday being over, taken Ruth in his arms and putting his lips close to her ear, whispered something into its pink shell that had started northern lights dancing all over her cheeks and away up to the roots of her hair; and had she not given him a good hug and kissed him in return, a thing she had never done in her whole life before? And had he not stopped on his way to the station for a last hand-shake with Jack and to congratulate him for the hundredth time for his plucky rescue of MacFarlane—a subject he never ceased to talk about—and had he not at the very last moment, told Jack every word of what he and Ruth talked about, with all the details elaborated, even to the hug, which was no sooner told than another set of northern lights got into action at once, and another hug followed; only this time it took the form of a hearty hand-shake and a pat on Peter's back, followed by a big tear which the boy tried his best to conceal? Peter had no theories detrimental to penniless young gentlemen, pursued by intermeddling old ladies.

And yet with all this there was one corner deep down in Ruth's heart so overgrown with "wonderings" and "whys," so thick with tangled doubts and misgivings, that no cheering ray of certainty had yet been able to pierce it. Nor had any one tried. Miss Felicia, good as she was and loving as she had been, had done nothing in the pruning way—that is, nothing which would let in any sunshine radiating from Jack. She had talked about him, it is true; not to her, we may be sure, but to her father, saying how handsome he had grown and what a fine man he was making of himself. She had, too, more than once commented—and this before everybody—on his good manners and his breeding, especially on the way he had received her the first morning she called, and to his never apologizing for his miserable surroundings, meagre as they were—just a theodolite, his father's portrait and half a dozen books alone being visible, the white walls covered with working plans. But when the poor girl had tried to draw from her some word that was personal to himself, or one that might become personal—and she did try even to the verge of betraying herself, which would never have done—Miss Felicia had always turned the subject at once or had pleaded forgetfulness. Not a word could she drag out of this very perverse and determined old lady concerning the state of the patient, nothing except that he was "better," or "doing nicely," or that the bandage was being shortened, or some other commonplace. Uncle Peter had been kinder. He understood—she saw that in his eyes. Still even Uncle Peter had not told her all that she wanted to know, and of course she could not ask him.

Soon a certain vague antagonism began to assert itself toward the old lady who knew so much and yet who said so little! who was too old really to understand—no old person, in fact, could understand—that is, no old woman. This proved, too, that this particular person could never have loved any other particular person in her life. Not that she, Ruth, loved Jack—by no manner of means—not in that way, at least. But she would have liked to know what he said, and how he said it, and whether his eyes had lost that terrible look which they wore when he turned away at the station to go back to his sick bed in the dingy hotel. All these things her Aunt Felicia knew about and yet she could not drag a word out of her.

What she ought to have done was to go herself that first night, bravely, honestly, fearlessly as any friend had a right to do; go to him in his miserable little hotel and try to cheer him up as Miss Felicia, and perhaps Miss Bolton, had done. Then she might have found out all about it. Exactly what it was that she wanted to find out all about—and this increased her perplexity—she could not formulate, although she was convinced it would help her to bear the anxiety she was suffering. Now it was too late; more than a week had passed, and no excuse for going was possible.

It was not until the morning after Peter's departure,—she, sitting alone, sad and silent in her chair at the head of her father's breakfast table (Miss Felicia, as was her custom, had her coffee in her room), that the first ray of light had crept into her troubled brain. It had only shone a brief moment,—and had then gone out in darkness, but it held a certain promise for better days, and on this she had built her hopes.

"I am going to send for Breen to-morrow, Ruth," her father had said as he kissed her good-night. "There are some things I want to talk over with him, and then I want to thank him for what he did for me. He's a man, every inch of him; I haven't told him so yet,—not to his face,—but I will to-morrow. Fine fellow is Breen; blood will always tell in the end, my daughter, and he's got the best in the country in his veins. Looks more like his father every day he lives."

She had hardly slept all night, thinking of the pleasure in store for her. She had dressed herself, too, in her most becoming breakfast gown—one she had worn when Jack first arrived at Corklesville, and which he said reminded him of a picture he had seen as a boy. There were pink rosebuds woven in its soft texture, and the wide peach-blossom ribbon that bound her dainty waist contrasted so delightfully, as he had timidly hinted, with the tones of her hair and cheeks.

It was the puffy, bespectacled little doctor who shut out the light.

"No, your father has still one degree of fever," he grumbled, with a wise shake of his bushy head. "No—nobody, Miss MacFarlane,—do you understand? He can see NOBODY—or I won't be responsible," and with this the crabbed old fellow climbed into his gig and drove away.

She looked after him for a moment and two hot tears dropped from her eyes and dashed themselves to pieces on the peach-blossom ribbon.

But the sky was clearing again—she didn't realize it,—but it was. April skies always make alternate lights and darks. The old curmudgeon had gone, but the garden gate was again a-swing.

Ruth heard the tread on the porch and drawing back the curtains looked out. The most brilliant sunbeams were but dull rays compared with what now flashed from her eyes. Nor did she wait for any other hand than her own to turn the knob of the door.

"Why, Mr. Breen!"

"Yes, Miss Ruth," Jack answered, lifting his hat, an unrestrained gladness at the sight of her beauty and freshness illumining his face. "I have come to report for duty to your father."

"But you cannot see him. You must report to me," she laughed gayly, her heart brimming over now that he was before her again. "Father was going to send for you to-day, but the doctor would not let him. Hush! he musn't hear us."

"He would not let me go out either, but as I am tired to death of being cooped up in my room, I broke jail. Can't I see him?" he continued in a lower key. He had his coat off and had hung it on the rack, she following him into the sitting-room, absorbing every inch of his strong, well-knit body from his short-cropped hair where the bandages had been wound, down to the sprained wrist which was still in splints. She noted, too, with a little choke in her throat, the shadows under the cheek bones and the thinness of the nose. She could see plainly how he had suffered.

"I am sorry you cannot see father." She was too moved to say more. "He still has one degree of fever."

"I have two degrees myself," Jack laughed softly,—"one records how anxious I was to get out of my cell and the other how eager I was to get here. And now I suppose I can't stay."

"Oh, yes, you can stay if you will keep as still as a mouse so father can't hear you," she whispered, a note of joy woven in her tones.

She was leading him to the sofa as she spoke. He placed a cushion for her, and took his place beside her, resting his injured hand, which was in a sling, on the arm. He was still weak and shaking.

"Daddy is still in his room," she rattled on nervously, "but he may be out and prowling about the upstairs hall any minute. He has a heap of things to talk over with you—he told me so last night—and if he knew you were here nothing would stop him. Wait till I shut the door. And now tell me about yourself," she continued in a louder voice, regaining her seat. "You have had a dreadful time, I hear—it was the wrist, wasn't it?" She felt she was beginning badly; although conscious of her nervous joy and her desire to conceal it, somehow it seemed hard for her to say the right thing.

"Oh, I reckon it was everything, Miss Ruth, but it's all over now." He was not nervous. He was in an ecstasy. His eyes were drinking in the round of her throat and the waves of glorious hair that crowned her lovely head. He noticed, too, some tiny threads that lay close to her ears: he had been so hungry for a glimpse of them!

"Oh, I hope so, but you shouldn't have come to the station that day," she struggled on. "We had Uncle Peter with us, and only a hand-bag, each of us,—we came away so suddenly."

"I didn't want you to be frightened about your father. I didn't know that Uncle Peter was with you; in fact, I didn't know much of anything until it was all over. Bolton sent the telegram as soon as he got his breath."

"That's what frightened us. Why didn't YOU send it?" she was gaining control of herself now and something of her old poise had returned.

"I hadn't got MY breath,—not all of it. I remember his coming into my room where they were tying me up and bawling out something about how to reach you by wire, and he says now that I gave him Mr. Grayson's address. I cannot remember that part of it, except that I—Well, never mind about that—" he hesitated turning away his gaze—the memory seemed to bring with it a certain pain.

"Yes,—tell me," she pleaded. She was too happy. This was what she had been waiting for. There was no detail he must omit.

"It was nothing, only I kept thinking it was you who were hurt," he stammered.

"Me!" she cried, her eyes dancing. The ray of light was breaking—one with a promise in it for the future!

"Yes,—you, Miss Ruth! Funny, isn't it, how when you are half dead you get things mixed up." Oh, the stupidity of these lovers! Not a thing had he seen of the flash of expectation in her eyes or of the hot color rising to her cheeks. "I thought somebody was trying to tell your father that you were hurt, and I was fighting to keep him from hearing it. But you must thank Bolton for letting you know."

Ruth's face clouded and the sparkle died out in her eyes. What was Mr. Bolton to her, and at a time like this?

"It was most kind of Mr. Bolton," she answered in a constrained voice. "I only wish he had said something more; we had a terrible day. Uncle Peter was nearly crazy about you; he telegraphed and telegraphed, but we could get no answer. That's why it was such a relief to find you at the station."

But the bat had not finished banging his head against the wall. "Then I did do some good by going?" he asked earnestly.

"Oh, indeed you did." If he did not care whether she had been hurt or not, even in his delirium, she was not going to betray herself. "It was the first time anybody had seen Uncle Peter smile; he was wretched all day. He loves you very dearly, Mr. Breen."

Jack's hand dropped so suddenly to his side that the pain made him tighten his lips. For a moment he did not answer.

"Then it was only Uncle Peter who was anxious, was it? I am glad he loves me. I love him, too," he said at last in a perfunctory tone—"he's been everything to me."

"And you have been everything to him." She determined to change the subject now. "He told me only—well,—two days ago—that you had made him ten years younger."

"Me?—Miss Ruth!" Still the same monotonous cadence.

"Yes."

"How?"

"Well,—maybe because he is old and you are young." As she spoke her eyes measured the width of his shoulders and his broad chest—she saw now to what her father owed his life—"and another thing; he said that he would always thank you for getting out alive. And I owe you a debt of gratitude, too, Mr. Breen;—you gave me back my dear daddy," she added in a more assured tone. Here at last was something she could talk unreservedly about. Something that she had wanted to say ever since he came.

Jack straightened and threw back his shoulders: that word again! Was that all that Ruth had to say?

"No, Miss Ruth, you don't." There was a slight ring of defiance now. "You do not owe me anything, and please don't think so, and please—please—do not say so!"

"I don't owe you anything! Not for saving my father's life?" This came with genuine surprise.

"No! What would you have thought of me, what would I have thought of myself had I left him to suffocate when I could just as well have brought him out? Do you think I could ever have looked you in the face again? You might not have ever known I could have saved him—but I should have hated myself every hour of my life. Men are not to be thanked for these things; they are to be despised if they don't do them. Can't you see the difference?"

"But you might have been killed, too!" she exclaimed. Her own voice was rising, irritation and disappointment swaying it. "Everybody says it was a miracle you were not."

"Not a miracle at all. All I was afraid of was stumbling over something in the dark—and it was nearly dark—only a few of the rock lights burning—and not be able to get on my feet again. But don't let us talk about it any more."

"Yes—but I will, I MUST. I must feel right about it all, and I cannot unless you listen. I shall never forget you for it as long as I live." There was a note of pathos in her voice. Why did he make it so hard for her, she thought. Why would he not look in her face and see? Why would he not let her thank him? "Nothing in the world is so precious to me as daddy, and never will be," she went on resolutely, driving back the feeling of injustice that surged up in her heart at his attitude—"and it is you, Mr. Breen, who have given him back to me. And daddy feels the same way about it; and he is going to tell you so the minute he sees you," she insisted. "He has sent you a lot of messages, he says, but they do not count. Please, now won't you let me thank you?"

Jack raised his head. He had been fingering a tassel on the end of the sofa, missing all the play of feeling in her eyes, taking in nothing but the changes that she rang on that one word "gratitude." Gratitude!—when he loved the ground she stepped on. But he must face the issue fairly now:

"No,—I don't want you to thank me," he answered simply.

"Well, what do you want, then?" She was at sea now,—compass and rudder gone,—wind blowing from every quarter at once,—she trying to reach the harbor of his heart while every tack was taking her farther from port. If the Scribe had his way the whole coast of love would be lighted and all rocks of doubt and misunderstanding charted for just such hapless lovers as these two. How often a twist of the tiller could send them into the haven of each other's arms, and yet how often they go ashore and stay ashore and worse still, stay ashore all their lives.

Jack looked into her eyes and a hopeless, tired expression crossed his face.

"I don't know," he said in a barely audible voice:—"I just—please, Miss Ruth, let us talk of something else; let me tell you how lovely your gown is and how glad I am you wore it to-day. I always liked it, and—"

"No,—never mind about my gown; I would rather you did not like anything about me than misunderstand me!" The tears were just under the lids;—one more thrust like the last and they would be streaming down her cheeks.

"But I haven't misunderstood you." He saw the lips quiver, but it was anger, he thought, that caused it.

"Yes, you have!"—a great lump had risen in her throat. "You have done a brave, noble act,—everybody says so; you carried my dear father out on your back when there was not but one chance in a thousand you would ever get out alive; you lay in a faint for hours and once they gave you up for dead; then you thought enough of Uncle Peter and all of us to get that telegram sent so we wouldn't be terrified to death and then at the risk of your life you met us at the station and have been in bed ever since, and yet I am to sit still and not say a word!" It was all she could do to control herself. "I do feel grateful to you and I always shall feel grateful to you as long as I live. And now will you take my hand and tell me you are sorry, and let me say it all over again, and with my whole heart? for that's the way I mean it."

She was facing him now, her hand held out, her head thrown back, her dark eyes flashing, her bosom heaving. Slowly and reverently, as a devotee would kiss the robe of a passing priest, Jack bent his head and touched her fingers with his lips.

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