She was thoroughly acquainted with every detail connected with the extensive farms and industries that had been handed down to her. A great deal of her time was devoted to an intelligent and comprehensive interest in the management of the farms. She was never out of touch with conditions. Her tenants respected and admired her; her foremen and superintendents consulted with her as they would not have believed it possible to consult with a woman; her bankers deferred to her.
She would have laughed at you if you had suggested to her that she had more than a grain of business-sense, or ability, or capacity, and yet she was singularly far-sighted and capable,—without being in the least aware of it. Her pleasures were not allowed to interfere with her obligations as a landlord, a citizen and a taxpayer. A certain part of each day was set aside for the business of the farms. She repaired bright and early to the little office at the back of the house where her grandfather had worked before her, and there she struggled over accounts, reports, claims,—and her cheque-book. And like her grim, silent grandsire, she "rode" the lanes that twined through field and timber,—only she rode gaily, blithely, with sunshine in her heart. The darkness was always behind her, never ahead.
Courtney undoubtedly had overcome the prejudice his visit to Quill's Window had inspired in her. They never spoke of that first encounter. It was as a closed book between them. He had forgotten the incident. At any rate, he had put it out of his mind. He sometimes wondered, however, if she would ever invite him to accompany her to the top of that forbidden hill. In their rambles they had passed the closed gate on more than one occasion. The words, "No Trespass," still met the eye. Some day he would suggest an adventure: the descent to the cave in quest of treasure! The two of them! Rope ladder and all! It would be great fun!
He was assiduous in his efforts to amuse her house guests. He laid himself out to be entertaining. If he resented the presence of young men from the city, he managed to conceal his feelings remarkably well. On one point he was firm: he would not accompany her on any of her trips to the city. Once she had invited him to motor in with her to a tea, and another time she offered to drive him about the city and out to the college on a sight-seeing tour. It was then that he said he was determined to obey "doctor's orders." No city streets for him! Even SHE couldn't entice him! He loved every inch of this charming, restful spot,—every tree and every stone,—and he would not leave it until the time came for him to go away forever.
He was very well satisfied with the fruits of this apparently ungracious refusal. She went to the city less frequently than before, and only when it was necessary. This, he decided, was significant. It could have but one meaning.
Her dog, Sergeant, did not like him.
A MID-OCTOBER DAY
One chilly, rainy afternoon in mid-October Courtney appeared at the house on the knoll half an hour earlier than was his custom. Alix was expecting friends down from the city for tea. From the hall where he was removing his raincoat he had a fair view through an open door of the north end of the long living-room. Logs were blazing merrily in the fireplace. Alix was standing before the fire, tearing a sheet of paper into small pieces. She was angry. She threw rather than dropped the bits of paper into the flames,—unmistakably she was furious. He waited a moment before entering the room. Her back was toward him. She turned in response to his discreet cough. Even in the dim light that filtered in from the grey, leaden day outside, he could detect the heightened colour in her cheeks, and as he advanced he saw that her eyes were wet with illy-suppressed tears. She bit her lip and forced a smile.
He possessed the philanderer's tact. There was nothing in his manner to indicate that he noticed anything unusual. He greeted her cheerfully and then, affecting a shiver, passed on to spread his hands out over the fire.
"This is great," he exclaimed, his back to her. He was giving her a chance to compose herself. "Nothing like a big log fire to warm the cockles of your heart,—although it isn't my heart that needs warming. Moreover, I don't know what cockles are. I must look 'em up in the dictionary. Come here, Sergeant,—there's a good dog! Come over and get warm, old fellow. Toast your cockles. By Jove, Miss Crown, isn't he ever going to make friends with me?"
"They are 'one man' dogs, Mr. Thane," she replied. "Come, Sergeant,—if you're going to be impolite you must leave the room. Excuse me a moment. Sergeant! Do you hear me, sir? Come!"
The big grey dog followed her slowly, reluctantly, from the room. Courtney heard her going up the stairs.
"That nasty brute is going to take a bite out of me some day," he muttered under his breath. "Fat chance I'd have to kiss her with that beast around."
He heard the closing of an upstairs door. His thoughts were still of the police dog.
"There's one thing sure," he said to himself. "That dog and I can't live in the same house." Then his thoughts rose swiftly to that upstairs room,—he was sure it was a dainty, inviting room,—to picture her before the mirror erasing all visible evidence of agitation. He found himself wondering what it was that caused this exhibition of temper. A letter? Of course,—a letter. A letter that contained something she resented, something that infuriated her. A personal matter, not a business one. She would not have treated a business matter in such a way. He knew her too well for that. The leaping flames gave no hint of what they had destroyed. Was it an anonymous letter? Had it anything to do with him?
His eye fell upon several envelopes on the library table. After a moment's hesitation and a quick glance toward the door, he strode over to inspect them. They were all unopened. Two were postmarked Chicago, one New York; on the others the postmarks were indistinct. The handwriting was feminine on most of them. A narrow, folded slip of paper lay a little detached from the letters. He picked it up and quickly opened it. It proved to be a check on a Philadelphia bank. A glance sufficed to show that it was for two hundred and fifty dollars, payable to the order of Alix Crown, and signed "D. W. Strong."
The door upstairs was opened and closed. Replacing the bit of paper on the table, he resumed his position before the fire. Quite a different Alix entered the room a few seconds later. She was smiling, her eyes were soft and tranquil. All traces of the passing tempest were gone.
"Sit down,—draw this big chair up to the fire,—do. It IS raw and nasty today, isn't it? I think the Mallons are coming out in an open car. Isn't it too bad?"
"Bad for the curls," he drawled. "Mind if I smoke?"
"Certainly not. Don't you know that by this time?"
He had drawn a chair up beside hers. Her reply afforded him a very definite sense of elation.
"It seems to me that the world is getting to be a rather heavenly place to live in," he said, and there was a trace of real feeling in his voice. "You don't mind my saying it's entirely due to you, do you?"
"Not in the least," she said calmly. "Charlie Webster once paraphrased a time-honoured saying. He said 'In the fall an old man's fancy slightly turns to thoughts of comfort.' I sha'n't deprive my fireplace and my big armchair of their just due by believing a word of what you say."
He tossed the match into the fire, drew in a deep breath of smoke, settled himself comfortably in the chair before exhaling, and then remarked:
"But I don't happen to be an old man. I happen to be a rather young one,—and a very truthful one to boot."
"Do you always tell the truth?"
He grinned. "More or less always," was his reply. "I never lie in October."
"And the other eleven months of the year?"
"Oh, I merely change the wording. In July I say 'I never lie in July,'—and so on throughout the twelve-month. I don't slight a single month. By the by, I hope I didn't pop in too far ahead of time this afternoon. You asked me to come at four. I'm half an hour early. Were you occupied with anything—"
"I was not busy. A few letters,—but they can wait." He caught the faint shadow of a cloud as it flitted across her eyes. "They are all personal,—nothing important in any of them, I am sure."
She shot a quick glance at the folded check and, arising abruptly, went over to the table where, with apparent unconcern, she ran through the little pile of letters. He saw her pick up the check and thrust it into the pocket of her sport skirt. Then she returned to the fireplace. The cloud was on her brow again as she stared darkly into the crackling flames. He knew now that it was Strong's letter she had destroyed in anger. He would have given much to know what the man she despised so heartily had written to her. If he could have seen that brief note he would have read:
I enclose my checque for two-fifty. If all goes well I hope to clean up the indebtedness by the first of the year. In any case, I am sure it can be accomplished by early spring. You may thank the flu for my present prosperity. It has been pretty bad here in the East again, although not so virulent as before. Please credit me with the amount. This leaves me owing you five hundred dollars. It should not take long to wipe it out entirely, interest and all.
Courtney eyed her narrowly as she stood for a moment looking into the fire before resuming her seat. He realized that her thoughts were far away and that they were not pleasant.
"It's queer," he said presently, "that you have never learned to smoke."
She started slightly at the sound of his voice. As she turned to sit down, he went on:
"Almost every girl I know smokes. I will not say that I like to see it,—especially in restaurants and all that sort of thing,—but it's rather jolly if there's a nice, cosy fire like this,—see what I mean? Sort of intimate, and friendly, and—soothing. Don't you want to try one now?"
"Thank you, no. If it weren't so shocking, I think I should like to learn how to smoke a pipe,—but I suppose that isn't to be thought of. Somehow I feel that a pipe might be a pal, a good old stand-by, or even a relative,—something to depend upon in all sorts of weather, fair and foul. I've noticed that the men on the place who smoke pipes appear to be contented and jolly and good humoured,—and efficient. Yes, I think I should like to smoke a pipe."
"Would you like me better if I cut out the cigarettes, and took up the pipe of peace—and contentment?" he inquired thoughtfully.
"I doubt it," she replied, smiling. "I can't imagine you smoking a pipe."
"Is that supposed to be flattering or scornful?"
"Neither. It is an impression, that's all."
He frowned slightly. "I used to smoke a pipe,—in college, you know. Up to my sophomore year. It was supposed to indicate maturity. But I don't believe I'd have the courage to tackle one now, Miss Crown. Not since that little gas experience over there. You see, my throat isn't what it was in those good old freshman days. Pipe smoke,—you may even say tobacco smoke, for heaven only knows what these cigarettes are made of,—pipe smoke is too strong. My throat is so confounded sensitive I—well, I'd probably cough my head off. That beastly gas made a coward of me, I fear. You've no idea what it does to a fellow's throat and lungs. If I live to be a thousand years old, I'll never forget the tortures I went through for weeks,—yes, ages. Every breath was like a knife cutting the very—But what a stupid fool I am! Distressing you with all these wretched details. Please forgive me."
She was looking at him wonderingly. "You are so different from the poor fellows I saw in New York," she said slowly. "I mean the men who had been gassed and shell-shocked. I saw loads of them in the hospitals, you know,—and talked with them. I was always tremendously affected by their silence, their moodiness, their unwillingness to speak of what they had been through. The other men, the ones who had lost legs or arms or even their eyes,—were as a rule cheerful and as chatty as could be,—oh, how my heart used to ache for them,—but the shell-shock men and the men who had been gassed, why, it was impossible to get them to talk about themselves. I have seen some of them since then. They are apparently well and strong, and yet not one word can you get out of them about their sufferings. You are almost unique, Mr. Thane. I am glad you feel disposed to talk about it all. It is a good sign. It—"
"I didn't say much about it at first," he interrupted hurriedly. "Moreover, Miss Crown," he went on, "a lot of those chaps,—the majority of them, in fact,—worked that dodge for all it was worth. It was a deliberate pose with them. They had to act that way or people wouldn't think they'd been hurt at all. Bunk, most of it."
"I don't believe that, Mr. Thane. I saw too many of them. The ones with whom I came in contact certainly were not trying to deceive anybody. They were in a pitiable condition, every last one of them,—pitiable."
"I do not say that all of them were shamming,—but I am convinced that a great many of them were."
"The doctors report that the shell-shock cases—"
"Ah, the doctors!" he broke in, shrugging his shoulders. "They were all jolly good fellows. All you had to do was to even hint that you'd been knocked over by a shell that exploded two hundred yards away and—zip! they'd send you back for repairs. As for myself, the only reason I didn't like to talk about my condition at first was because it hurt my throat and lungs. It wasn't because I was afflicted with this heroic melancholy they talk so much about. I was mighty glad to be alive. I couldn't see anything to mope about,—certainly not after I found out I wasn't going to die."
"I daresay there were others who took it as you did. I wish there could have been more."
He hesitated a moment before speaking again. Then he hazarded the question:
"What does your friend, Dr. Strong, have to say about the general run of such cases?"
"I don't know. I have not seen Dr. Strong since the war ended."
He looked mildly surprised. "Hasn't he been home since the war?"
"I believe so. I was away at the time."
"How long was he in France?"
"He went over first in 1916 and again in the fall of 1917, and remained till the end of the war. His mother is here with me, you know."
"Yes, I know. By Jove, I envy him one thing,—lucky dog." She remained silent. "You were playmates, weren't you?"
"Yes," she said, lifting her chin slightly.
"Well, that's why I envy him. To have been your playmate,—Why, I envy him every minute of his boyhood. When I think of my own boyhood and how little there was to it that a real boy should have, I—I—confound it, I almost find myself hating chaps like Strong, chaps who lived in the country and had regular pals, and girl sweethearts, and went fishing and hunting, and played hookey as it ought to be played, and grew up with something fine and sweet and wholesome to look back upon,—and to have had you for a playmate,—maybe a sweetheart,—you in short frocks, with your hair in pigtails, barefooted in summertime, running—"
She interrupted him. "Your imagination is at fault there, Mr. Thane," she said, smiling once more. "I never went barefooted in my life."
"At any rate, HE did. And he played all sorts of games with you; he—"
"My impression of David Strong is that he was a boy's boy," she broke in rather stiffly. "His games were with the boys of the town,—and they were rough games. Football, baseball, shinney, circus,—things like that."
"I don't mean sports, Miss Crown. I was thinking of those wonderful boy and girl games,—such as 'playing house,' 'getting married,' 'hide-and-go-seek,'—all that sort of thing."
"Yes, I know," she admitted. "We often played at getting married, and we had very large but inanimate families, and we quarrelled like real married people, and I used to cry and take my playthings home, and he used to stand outside our fence and make faces at me till I hated him ferociously. But all that was when we were very small, you see."
"And as all such things turn out, I suppose he grew up and went off and got married to some one else."
"He is not married, Mr. Thane."
"Well, for that matter, neither are you," said he, leaning forward, his eyes fixed intently on hers. She did not flinch. "I wonder just how you feel toward him today, Miss Crown."
She was incapable of coquetry. "We are not the best of friends," she said quietly. "Now, if you please, let us talk of something else. Did I tell you that an old Ambulance man is coming down for a day or two nest week? A Harvard man who lives in Chicago. His sister and I went to New York together to take our chances there on getting over to France. I think I've told you about her,—Mary Blythe?"
"Blythe?" repeated Courtney thoughtfully. "Blythe. Seems to me I heard of a chap named Blythe over there in the Ambulance, but I don't remember whether I ran across him anywhere or not. He may have been after my time, however. I was with the Ambulance in '15 and the early part of '16, you see."
"Addison Blythe. He was afterwards a Field Artillery captain. I've known Mary Blythe for years, but I know him very slightly. He went direct from Harvard to France, you see."
"What section was he with?"
"I don't know. I only know he was at Pont-a-Mousson for several months. You were there too at one time, I remember. I've heard him speak of the Bois le Pretre. You may have been there at the same time."
"Hardly possible. I should have known him in that case. My section was sent up to Bar le Duc just before the first big Verdun battle."
"Why, he was all through the first battle of Verdun. His section was transferred from Pont-a-Mousson at an hour's notice. Were there more than one section at Pont-a-Mousson?"
"I don't know how they were fixed after I left. You see, I was trying to get into the aviation end of the game along about that time. I was in an aviation camp for a couple of months, but went back to the Ambulance just before the Verdun scrap. They slapped me into another section, of course. I used to see fellows from my own section occasionally, but I don't recall any one named Blythe. He probably was sent up while I was at Toul,—or it may have been during the time I was with a section in the Vosges. I was up near Dunkirk too for a while,—only for a few weeks. When did you say he was coming?"
"Next Tuesday. They are stopping off on their way to attend a wedding in Louisville. You two will have a wonderful time reminiscing."
"Blythe. I'll rummage around in my memory and see if I can place him. There was a fellow named Bright up there at one time,—at least I got the name as Bright. It may have been Blythe. I'll be tickled to death to meet him, Miss Crown."
"You will love Mary Blythe. She is a darling."
"I may be susceptible, Miss Crown, but I am not inconstant," said he, with a gallant bow.
She was annoyed with herself for blushing.
"Will you throw another log or two on the fire, please?" she said, arising. "I think I hear a car coming up the drive. The poor Mallons will be chilled to the bone."
He smiled to himself as he took the long hickory logs from the wood box and placed them carefully on the fire. He had seen the swift flood of colour mount to her cheeks, and the odd little waver in her eyes before she turned them away. She was at the window, looking out, when he straightened himself and gingerly brushed the wood dust from his hands. Instead of joining her, he remained with his back to the fire, his feet spread apart, his hands in his coat pockets, comforting himself with the thought that she was wondering why he had not followed her. It was, he rejoiced, a very clever bit of strategy on his part. He waited for her to turn away from the window and say, with well-assumed perplexity: "I was sure I heard a car, Mr. Thane."
And that is exactly what she did say after a short interval, adding:
"It must have been the wind in the chimney."
"Very likely," he agreed.
She remained at the window. He held his position before the fire.
"If I were just a plain damned fool," he was saying to himself, "I'd rush over there and spoil everything. It's too soon,—too soon. She's not ready yet,—not ready."
Alix, looking out across the porch into the grey drizzle that drenched the lawn, thrust her hand into her skirt pocket and, clutching the bit of paper in her fingers, crumpled it into a small ball. Her eyes were serene, however, as she turned away and walked back to the fireplace.
"I don't believe they are coming, after all. I think they might have telephoned," she said, glancing up at the old French ormula clock on the mantelpiece. "Half-past four. We will wait a few minutes longer and then have tea."
His heart gave a sudden thump. Was it possible—but no! She would not stoop to anything like that. The little thrill of exultation departed as quickly as it came.
"Tire trouble, perhaps," he ventured.
Tea was being brought in when the belated guests arrived. Courtney, spurred by the brief vision of success ahead, was never in better form, never more entertaining, never so well provided with polite cynicisms. Later on, when he and Alix were alone and he was putting on his raincoat in the hall, she said to him impulsively:
"I don't know what I should have done without you, Mr. Thane. You were splendid. I was in no mood to be nice or agreeable to anybody."
"Alas!" he sighed. "That shows how unobserving I am. I could have sworn you were in a perfectly adorable mood."
"Well, I wasn't," she said stubbornly. "I was quite horrid."
"Has anything happened to—to distress you, Miss Crown?" he inquired anxiously. His voice was husky and a trifle unsteady. "Can't you tell me? Sometimes it helps to—"
"Nothing has happened," she interrupted nervously. "I was—just stupid, that's all."
"When am I to see you again?" he asked, after a perceptible pause. "May I come tonight?"
"Not tonight," she said, shaking her head.
She gave no reason,—nothing more than the two little words,—and yet he went away exulting. He walked home through the light, gusty rain, so elated that he forgot to use his cane,—and he had limped quite painfully earlier in the afternoon, complaining of the dampness and chill. He had the habit of talking to himself when walking alone in the darkness. He thought aloud:
"She wants to be alone,—she wants to think. She has suddenly realized. She is frightened. She doesn't understand. She is bewildered. She doesn't want to see me tonight. Bless her heart! I'll bet my head she doesn't sleep a wink. And tomorrow? Tomorrow I shall see her. But not a word, not a sign out of me. Not tomorrow or next day or the day after that. Keep her thinking, keep her guessing, keep her wondering whether I really care. Pretty soon she'll realize how miserable she is,—and then!"
THE CHIMNEY CORNER
A. Lincoln Pollock was full of news at supper that evening. Courtney, coming in a little late,—in fact, Miss Margaret Slattery already had removed the soup plates and was beginning to wonder audibly whether a certain guy thought she was a truck-horse or something like that,—found the editor of the Sun anticipating by at least twelve hours the forthcoming issue of his paper. He was regaling his fellow-boarders with news that would be off the press the first thing in the morning,—having been confined to the composing-room for the better part of a week,—and he was enjoying himself. Charlie Webster once made the remark that "every time the Sun goes to press, Link Pollock acts for all the world like a hen that's just laid an egg, he cackles so."
"I saw Nancy Strong this morning and she was telling me about a letter she had from David yesterday. He wants her to pack up and come to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to live with him. He says he'll take a nice little apartment, big enough for the two of 'em, if she'll only come. She can't make up her mind what to do. She's so fond of Alix she don't see how she can desert her,—at least, not till she gets married,—and yet she feels she owes it to her son to go and make a home for him. Every once in a while Alix makes her a present of a hundred dollars or so,—once she gave her three hundred in cold, clean cash,—and actually loves her as if she was her own mother. Nancy's terribly upset. She is devoted to Alix, and at the same time she's devoted to her son. She seemed to want my advice, but of course I couldn't give her any. It's a thing she's got to work out for herself. I couldn't advise her to leave Alix in the lurch and I couldn't advise her to turn her back on her only son,—could I?"
"How soon does David want her to come?" inquired Miss Molly Dowd.
"Before Christmas, I believe. He wants her to be with him on Christmas day."
"Well, it would work out very nicely," said Mrs. Pollock, "if Alix would only get married before that time."
"I guess that's just what Nancy is kind of hoping herself," stated Mr. Pollock. "It would simplify everything. Of course, when she told Alix about David's letter and what he wanted her to do, Alix was mighty nice about it. She told Nancy to go by all means, her place was with her son if he needed her, and she wouldn't stand in the way for the world. Nancy says she had about made up her mind to go, but changed it last night. She was telling me about sneaking up to Alix's bedroom door and listening. Alix was crying, sort of sobbing, you know. That settled it with Nancy,—temporarily at any rate. Now she's up in the air again, and don't know what to do. She's gone and told Alix she won't leave her, but all the time she keeps wondering if Davy can get along without her in that great big city, surrounded by all kinds of perils and traps and pitfalls,—night and day. Evil women and—"
"Has Alix said anything to you about it, Mr. Thane?" inquired Maude Baggs Pollock.
"Not a word," replied Courtney, secretly irritated by the discovery that Alix had failed to take him into her confidence. "She doesn't discuss servant troubles with me."
"Oh, good gracious!" cried Miss Dowd. "If Nancy Strong ever heard you speak of her as a servant she'd—".
"She'd bite your head off," put in Miss Margaret Slattery. "Are you through with your soup, Mr. Thane?" Without waiting for an answer, she removed the plate with considerable abruptness.
"Are you angry with me, Margaret?" he asked, with a reproachful smile. His smile was too much for Margaret. She blushed and mumbled something about being sorry and having a headache.
"Say, Court, do you know this Ambulance feller that's coming to visit Alix next week?" asked the editor, with interest.
"You mean Addison Blythe? He was up at Pont-a-Mousson for a while, I believe, but it was after I had left for the Vosges section. I've heard of him. Harvard man."
"You two ought to have a good time when you get together," said Doc Simpson.
"I've got an item in the Sun about him this week, and next week we'll have an interview with him."
The usually loquacious Mr. Webster had been silent since Courtney's arrival. Now he lifted his voice to put a question to Miss Angie Miller, across the table.
"Did you write that letter I spoke about the other day, Angie?"
"Yes,—but there hasn't been time for an answer yet."
"Speaking about David Strong," remarked Mr. Pollock, "I'll never forget what he did when Mr. Windom gave him a silver watch for his twelfth birthday. Shows what a bright, progressive, enterprising feller he was even at that age. You remember, Miss Molly? I mean about his setting his watch fifteen minutes ahead the very day he got it."
Miss Molly smiled. "It WAS cute of him, wasn't it?"
"What was the idea?" inquired Mr. Hatch.
"So's he would know what time it was fifteen minutes sooner than anybody else in town," said Mr. Pollock.
"My, what a handsome boy he was," said Miss Angie Miller.
"Do you really think so?" cried Mrs. Pollock. "I never could see anything good looking about him,—except his physique. He has a splendid physique, but I never liked his face. It's so—so—well, so, raw-boned and all. I like smooth, regular features in a man. I—"
"Like mine," interjected the pudgy Mr. Webster, with a very serious face.
"David Strong has what I call a very rugged face," said Miss Miller. "I didn't say it was pretty, Maude."
"He takes a very good photograph," remarked Mr. Hatch. "Specially a side-view. I've got one side-view of him over at the gallery that makes me think of an Indian every time I look at it."
"Perhaps he has Indian blood in him," suggested Courtney, who was tired of David Strong.
"Well, every drop of blood he's got in him is red," said Charlie Webster; "so maybe you're right."
"The most interesting item in the Sun tomorrow," said Mr. Pollock, "is the word that young Cale Vick, across the river, has enlisted in the navy. He leaves on Monday for Chicago to join some sort of a training school, preparatory to taking a job on one of Uncle Sam's newest battleships,—the biggest in the world, according to his grandfather, who was in to see me a day or two ago. I have promised to send young Cale the Sun for a year without charging him a cent. Old man Brown says Amos Vick's daughter Rosabel isn't at all well. Something like walking typhoid, he says,—mopes a good deal and don't sleep well."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," exclaimed Courtney, real concern in his voice. "She was such a lively, light-hearted girl when I was over there. I can't imagine her moping. I hope Amos Vick isn't too close-fisted to consult a doctor. He's an awful tight-wad—believe me."
"Doctor can't seem to find anything really the matter ter with her, so old Cale Brown told me," said Mr. Pollock. "But don't you think it's fine of young Cale to join the navy, Court? Maybe your tales about the war put it into his head."
"It's more likely that he'd got fed up with life on a farm," said Courtney. "He'll find himself longing for the farm and mother a good many times before he's through with the navy."
Instead of going up to his room immediately after supper, as was his custom of late, Courtney joined the company in the "lounging room," so named by Mr. Webster who contended that no first-class hotel ever had such a thing as a parlour any more. The Misses Dowd, of course, called it the parlour, but as they continued to refer to the fireplace as the "chimney corner," one may readily forgive their reluctance to progress. Smoking was permitted in the "lounging room" during the fall and winter months only.
A steady rain was beating against the windows, and a rising wind made itself heard in feeble wails as it turned the dark corners of the Tavern. Presently it was to howl and shriek, and, as the rain ceased, to rattle the window shutters and the ancient, creaking sign that hung out over the porch,—for on the wind tonight came the first chill touch of winter.
"A fine night to be indoors," remarked Courtney in his most genial manner as he moved a rocking chair up to the fireplace and gallantly indicated to old Mrs. Nichols that it was intended for her.
"Ain't you going out tonight, Court?" inquired Mr. Hatch.
"Iron horses couldn't drag me out tonight," he replied. "Sit here, Mrs. Pollock. Doc, pull up that sofa for Miss Grady and Miss Miller. Let's have a chimney-corner symposium. Is symposium the right word, Miss Miller? Ah, I see it isn't. Well, I did my best. I could have got away with it in New York, but no chance here. And speaking of New York reminds me that at this very instant the curtains are going up and the lights are going down in half a hundred theatres,—and I don't mind confessing I'd like to be in one of them."
"That's one thing I envy New York for," said Mrs. Pollock. "Hand me my knitting off the table, Lincoln, please. I love the theatre. I could go every night—"
"You get tired of them after a little while, Maude," said Flora Grady, a trifle languidly. "Isn't that so, Mr. Thane?"
"Quite," agreed Courtney. "You get fed up with 'em."
"I remember once when I was in New York going six nights in succession, seeing all the best things on the boards at that time, and I give you my word," said Miss Grady, "they DID feed me up terribly."
"I know just what you mean, Miss Grady," said Courtney, without cracking a smile. "One gets so bored with the best plays in town. What one really ought to do, you know, is to go to the worst ones."
"I've always wanted to see 'The Blue Bird,'" said Miss Miller wistfully. "It's by Maeterlinck, Mr. Nichols."
Old Mr. Nichols looked interested. "You don't say so," he ejaculated. "Give me a good minstrel show,—that's what I like. Haverly's or Barlow, Wilson, Primrose & West, or Billy Emerson's or—say, did you ever see Luke Schoolcraft? Well, sir, there was the funniest end man I ever see. There used to be another minstrel man named,—er—lemme see,—now what was that feller's name? It begin with L, I think—or maybe it was W. Now—lemme—think. Go on talkin', the rest of you. I'll think of his name before bedtime." Whereupon the ancient Mr. Nichols relapsed into a profound state of thought from which he did not emerge until Mr. Webster shook his shoulder some fifteen or twenty minutes later and informed him that if he got any worse Mrs. Nichols would be able to hear him, and then she couldn't go 'round telling people that he slept just like a baby.
Courtney was in his element. He liked talking about the stage, and stage people. And on this night,—of all nights,—he wanted to talk, he wanted company. The clock on the mantel-piece struck ten and half-past and was close to striking eleven before any one made a move toward retiring,—excepting Mr. and Mrs. Nichols who had gone off to bed at eight-thirty. The Misses Dowd had joined the little company in the "parlour." He discussed books with Mrs. Pollock and Miss Miller, fashions with Miss Grady, politics with Mr. Pollock,—(agreeing with the latter on President Wilson),—art with Mr. Hatch and the erudite Miss Miller, the drama with every one.
Now, Courtney Thane knew almost nothing about books, and even less about pictures. He possessed, however, a remarkable facility when it came to discussing them. He belonged to that rather extensive class of people who thrive on ignorance. If you wanted to talk about Keats or Shelley, he managed to give you the impression that he was thoroughly familiar with both,—though lamenting a certain rustiness of memory at times. He could talk intelligently about Joseph Conrad, Arnold Bennet, Bernard Shaw, Galsworthy, Walpole, Mackenzie, Wells and others of the modern English school of novelists,—that is to say, he could differ or agree with you on almost anything they had written, notwithstanding the fact that he had never read a line by any one of them. He professed not to care for Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure," though nothing could have been more obscure to him than the book itself or the author thereof, and agreed with the delightful Mrs. Pollock that "The Mayor of Casterbridge" was an infinitely better piece of work than "Tess of the D'Urbervilles." As for the American writers, he admitted a shameful ignorance about them.
"Of course, I read Scott when I was a boy,—I was compelled to do so, by the way,—but as for the others I am shockingly unfamiliar with them. Ever since I grew up I've preferred the English novelists and poets, so I fear I—"
"I thought Scott was an English writer," put in Charlie Webster quietly.
"What Scott are you referring to, Charlie?" he asked indulgently.
"Why, Sir Walter Scott,—he wrote 'Ivanhoe,' you know."
"Well, I happen to be speaking of William Scott, the American novelist,—no doubt unknown to most of you. He was one of the old-timers, and I fancy has dropped out of the running altogether."
"Never heard of him," said Mr. Pollock, scratching his ear reflectively.
"Indigenous to New England, I fancy,—like the estimable codfish," drawled Courtney, and was rewarded by a wholesome Middle West laugh.
"What are those cabarets like?" inquired Mr. Hatch. He pronounced it as if he were saying cigarettes.
"Pretty rotten," said Thane.
"Are you fond of dancing, Mr. Thane?" inquired Mrs. Pollock. "I used to love to trip the light fantastic."
"I am very fond of dancing," said he, and then added with a smile: "Especially since the girls have taken to parking their corsets."
There was a shocked silence, broken by Miss Grady, who, as a dressmaker, was not quite so finicky about the word.
"What do you mean by parking?" she inquired.
"Same as you park an automobile," said he, enjoying the sensation he had created. "It's the fashion now, among the best families as well as the worst, for the girls when they go to dances to leave their corsets in the dressing rooms. Check 'em, same as you do your hat."
"Bless my soul," gasped Mr. Pollock. "Haven't they got any mothers?"
"Sure,—but the mothers don't know anything about it. You see, it's this way. We fellows won't dance with 'em if they've got corsets on,—so off they come."
"What's the world coming to?" cried the editor.
"You'd better ask where it's going to," said Charlie Webster.
"Do you go to the opera very often?" asked Miss Miller nervously.
He spoke rather loftily of the Metropolitan Opera House, and very lightly of the Metropolitan Museum,—and gave Charlie Webster a sharp look when that amiable gentleman asked him what he thought of the Metropolitan Tower.
But he was at home in the theatre. He told them just what Maude Adams and Ethel Barrymore were like, and Julia Marlowe, and Elsie Ferguson, and Chrystal Herne, and all the rest of them. He spoke familiarly of Mr. Faversham as "Favvy," of Mr. Collier as "Willie," of Mr. Sothern as "Ned," of Mr. Drew as "John," of Mr. Skinner as "Otis," of Mr. Frohman as "Dan."
And when he said good night and reluctantly wended his way to the room at the end of the hall, round the corner of which the fierce October gale shrieked derisively, he left behind him a group enthralled.
"Isn't he a perfect dear?" cried Mrs. Pollock, clasping her hands.
"The most erudite man I have ever met," agreed Miss Miller ecstatically. "Don't you think so, Mr. Hatch?"
Mr. Hatch was startled. "Oh,—er—yes, indeed. Absolutely!" he stammered, and then looked inquiringly at his finger nails. He hoped he had made the proper response.
Charlie Webster ambled over to one of the windows and peered out into the whistling night.
"It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good," said he sententiously.
"What do you mean by that, Charlie?" inquired Flora Grady, at his elbow.
"Well, if it had been a pleasant night he'd have been up at Alix Crown's instead of here," said Charlie.
"I see," said Flora, after a moment. "You mean the ill wind favoured Alix, eh?"
Charlie's round face was unsmiling as he stared hard at the fire.
"I wonder—" he began, and then checked the words.
"Don't you worry about Alix," said Flora. "She's nobody's fool."
"I wasn't thinking of Alix just then," said Charlie.
The following morning, Courtney went, as was his custom, to the postoffice. He had arranged for a lock-box there. His letters were not brought up to the Tavern by old Jim House, the handy-man.
The day was bright and clear and cold; the gale had died in the early morning hours. Alix Crown's big automobile was standing in front of the post-office, the engine running. Catching sight of it as he left the Tavern porch, he hastened his steps. He was a good two hundred yards away and feared she would be off before he could come up with her. As he drew near, he saw the lanky chauffeur standing in front of the drug store, chatting with one of the villagers.
Alix was in the post-office. As he passed the car, he slackened his pace and glanced over his shoulder into the tonneau. The side curtains were down. A low growl greeted him. He hastened on.
She was at the registry window.
"Hello!" he exclaimed, extending his hand and searching her face as he did so for signs of a sleepless night.
"Good morning," she responded cheerily. There was nothing in her voice, her eyes or her manner to indicate an even remotely disturbed state of mind. Her gaze met his serenely; the colour did not rush to her cheeks as he had fondly expected, nor did her eyes waver under the eager, intense gleam in his. He suddenly felt cheated.
"Where are you off to this morning?" he inquired.
"To town for the day. I have some business to attend to and some shopping to do. Would you like to come along?"
He was in a sulky mood.
"You know I hate the very thought of going to town," he said. Then, as she raised her eyebrows slightly, he made haste to add: "I'd go from one end of the desert of Sahara to the other with you, but—" shaking his head so solemnly that she laughed outright,—"not to the city. Just ask me to go to the Sahara with you and see how—"
"Haven't you had enough of No-Man's Land?" she cried merrily.
"It depends on what you'd call No-Man's Land," said he, and her gaze faltered at last. There was no mistaking his meaning. "Sometimes it is Paradise, you know," he went on softly.
Twice before she had seen the same look in his eyes, and both times she had experienced a strange sensation, as of the weakness that comes with ecstasy. There had been something in his eyes that seemed to caress her from head to foot, something that filled her with the most disquieting self-consciousness. Strange to say, it was not the ardent look of the love-sick admirer,—and she had not escaped such tributes,—nor the inquiring look of the adventurous married man. It was not soulful nor was it offensive. She reluctantly confessed to herself that it was warm and penetrating and filled her with a strange, delicious alarm.
She quickly withdrew her gaze and turned to the little window where Mrs. Pollock was making out her receipt for a registered package. She felt that she was cowardly, and the thought made her furious.
"Will it go out today, Mrs. Pollock?" she asked.
"This afternoon," replied the postmaster's wife and assistant. "Wasn't that a dreadful wind last night, Alix? I thought of you. You must have been frightened."
"I slept like a log through all of it," said Alix. "I love the wild night wind. It makes me feel so nice and comfy in bed. I was awfully tired last night. Thanks." Then turning to Courtney: "Sorry you will not go with me. I'll bear you in mind if I ever take a trip to the Sahara. Good-bye."
"Will you be at home tonight?" he asked, holding the door open for her to pass through.
"Yes," she replied composedly.
"I mean,—to me?"
"If you care to come," she said.
He did not accompany her to the car. The big grey-brown dog with his paws on the back of the front seat, was eagerly watching her approach.
She wore a long mole-skin coat and a smart little red turban. She had never looked so alluring to the young man who waited in the open door until the car started away.
"Close the door, please," called out Mrs. Pollock. "This isn't July, you know."
"So she slept like a log, did she?" muttered Courtney as he turned away from his lockbox with a letter. "Well, that's more than I did."
He glanced hurriedly through the letter, crumpled it up in his hand, and went jauntily up the street until he came to Hatch's Photograph Gallery. Entering, he gave the proprietor a hearty "good morning," and then drew a chair up before the low "sheet-iron stove" which heated the reception-room. Hatch was "printing" behind a partition, and their conversation was carried on at long range over the top. Presently the visitor drew the crumpled letter from his pocket, tore it into tiny pieces and cast it into the fire.
"Well, so long, Hatch. I'm off for a stroll in your crisp October air."
THANE VISITS TWO HOUSES
All day long Alix was troubled. She could not free her thoughts of that searing look or the spell it had cast over her during the brief instant of contact. She was haunted by it. At times she gave herself up to a reckless, unmaidenly rejoicing in the thrill it had given her; at such times she flushed to the roots of her hair despite the chill of ecstasy that swept over her. But far more often she found herself resenting the liberty his eyes had taken,—a mental rather than a physical liberty. She was resolved that it should not happen again.
She had posted a note to David Strong that morning. Before the car had covered the first mile on its way to town, she was wishing she had not dropped it into the slot at the post-office. Only the fear of appearing ridiculous to Mrs. Pollock kept her from turning back to reclaim it. She could not explain this sudden, almost frantic impulse,—she did not attempt to account for it. Somehow she sensed that it had to do with the look in Thane's eyes,—but it was all so vague and intangible that even the suggestion did not take the form of thought.
In this curt little note she had said:
I hereby acknowledge receipt of your cheque No. 372 for two hundred and fifty dollars, but as I have tried to make you understand before, it is not only an unnecessary but a most unwelcome bit of paper. You are perfectly well aware that my grandfather's estate has been settled and, as I have informed you time and again, your obligation to him no longer exists. You may have owed something to him, but you owe nothing to me. If I were to follow my impulse I should tear up this cheque of yours. It would be useless to return it to you, for you would only send it back to me, as you did with the first two cheques that came last winter. I want you to understand that I do not accept this money as my own. If it is any satisfaction to you to know that I give it away,—no matter how,—you are welcome to all the consolation you may get out of it.
P.S.—I have advised your mother to go to Philadelphia whenever you are ready for her to come. A.
P.S.S.—Under separate cover by registered post I am also returning to you the bracelet you sent me from Paris. I think I wrote you a long time ago how much I admired it. A.
Meanwhile, Thane was making the best of a rather empty morning. He put off finishing a letter to his mother, who had returned to New York and was so busy with dressmakers that twice she had employed the telegraph in promising to "write soon,"—a letter in which he already had written, among other rapturous passages: "She is positively ravishing, mater dear. I am simply mad about her, and I know you will be too." He was determined that the day should not be a total loss; he would turn at least a portion of it to profit.
First of all, he visited Alaska Spigg at the log-hut village library. Miss Spigg was very proud of her geraniums. No one else in Windomville,—or in the world, for that matter, if one were to recall Mr. Pollock's article in the Sun,—no one else cultivated such geraniums as those to be seen in the pots that crowned the superinforced windowsills at the library.
There was no such thing as a florist's shop in Windomville. Roses or orchids or even carnations were unobtainable. A potted geranium plant, in full bloom,—one of Alaska Spigg's tall, sturdy, jealously guarded treasures was the best he could do in the way of a floral offering to his goddess. So he set about the supposedly hopeless task of inducing Alaska to part with one of her plants. Half an hour after entering the library he departed with a balloon shaped object in his arms. He was not too proud to be seen shuffling up the lane with his prize, a huge thing loosely done up in newspapers,—leaving behind him a completely dazzled Alaska who went about the place aimlessly folding and unfolding a brand new two-dollar bill.
"I don't know what come over me," explained Alaska later on to a couple of astonished ladies who had hurried in to see if the report was true that she had parted with one of her geraniums. "For the life of me, I don't know how I happened to do it. 'Specially the one I was proudest of, too. I've always said I'd never sell one of my plants,—not even if the President of the United States was to come in and offer me untold millions for it,—and here I—I—why, Martha, I almost GAVE it to him, honest I did. I just couldn't seem to help letting him have it. Of course, I don't mind its loss half so much, knowing that it is going to Alix. She loves flowers. She'll take the best of care of it. But how I ever came to—"
"Don't cry, Alaska," broke in one of her callers cheerfully. "You'll be getting it back before long."
"Never," lamented Alaska. "What makes you think I'll get it back?" she went on, suddenly peeping over the edge of her handkerchief.
"Why, as soon as Alix knows how miserable you are about parting with that geranium, she'll send it back to you,—and you'll be two dollars ahead. Don't be silly."
Repairing at once to the house on the knoll, Courtney took counsel with Mrs. Strong. The housekeeper could hardly believe her eyes when she saw the geranium.
"Well, all I've got to say is that you must have stolen it," she exclaimed. "There couldn't be any other way to get one of those plants away from Alaska Spigg."
"Be that as it may," said he airily, "what we've got to decide now, Mrs. Strong, is just where to put it. I want to surprise Miss Crown when she returns from town."
"She'll be surprised all right when she finds out you got one of Alaska Spigg's pet geraniums. I remember Alaska saying not so long ago that she wouldn't sell one of those plants for a million dollars. Now let me see. It ought to go where it will get as much sun as possible. That would be in the dining-room. I guess we'd better—"
"I really think it would look better right here in this room, Mrs. Strong," said he, indicating one of the windows looking out over the terrace. There was little or no sunlight there, but he did not mind that. As a matter of fact, he wasn't at all concerned about the future welfare of the plant. It meant no more to him than the customary bunch of violets that one sends, "sight unseen," to the lady of the hour.
"Well, you're the boss. It's your plant," said Mrs. Strong briskly. "Alaska Spigg will go into hysterics when she hears where you've put it,—but that's of no consequence."
And so the plant was placed on a small table in the window of the long living-room.
"Link Pollock told us last night that you may go to Philadelphia to join your son, Mrs. Strong," said he, as he watched her arranging the window curtains.
Mrs. Strong flushed. "It did not occur to me to ask Mr. Pollock not to repeat what I said to him in confidence," she said, with dignity.
"I'm sorry I mentioned it. I am sure Pollock didn't understand it was—er—a secret or anything like that, Mrs. Strong."
"It isn't a secret. I have talked it over with Miss Alix, and I have practically decided to remain with her. You may tell that to Mr. Pollock if you like."
"She would miss you terribly," said he, allowing the sarcasm to pass over his head. "Your son and Miss Crown were boy and girl sweethearts, I hear,—oh, please don't be offended. Those things happen, you know,—and pass off like all of the children's diseases. Like the measles, or mumps or chicken pox. Every boy and girl has to go through that stage, you know. I remember being horribly in love with a girl in our block when I was fifteen,—and she with me. But, for the life of me, I can't remember her name now. I mean her married name," he explained, with his whimsical grin.
"I don't believe Alix and David ever were in love with each other," said she stiffly. "They were wonderful friends,—playmates and all that,—but,"—here she flushed again, "you see, my boy was only the blacksmith's son. People may have told you that, Mr. Thane."
"What has that to do with it?" he cried instantly. "Wasn't Miss Crown's father the son of a blacksmith?"
He caught the passing flicker of appreciation in her eyes as she lifted her head.
"True," she said quietly. "And a fine young man, they tell me,—those who knew him. His father was not like my David's father, however. He was a drunkard. He beat his wife, they say."
"Abraham Lincoln was a rail splitter. James A. Garfield drove a canal boat. Does anybody think the worse of them for that? Your son, Mrs. Strong,—I am told by all who know him,—will be a great surgeon, a great man. You must not forget that people will speak of HIS son as the son of Dr. David Strong, the famous surgeon."
Her face glowed with pleasure. Mother love and mother pride kindled in her dark eyes. He caught himself wondering if young David Strong was like this tall, grey-haired woman with the steady gaze and quiet smile.
"I am sure David will succeed," she said warmly. "He always was a determined boy. Mr. Windom was very fond of him. He took a great interest in him." A self-conscious, apologetic smile succeeded the proud one. "I suppose you would call Alix and David boy and girl sweethearts. As you say, boys and girls just simply can't help having such ailments. It's like an epidemic. Even the strongest catch it and,—get over it without calling in the doctor."
He grinned. "It is a most amiable disease. The only medicine necessary is soda water and ice cream, with a few pills in the shape of chocolate caramels or marshmallows, taken at all hours and in large doses."
Mrs. Strong's eyes softened as she looked out of the window. A faraway, wistful expression lurked in them.
"Those were wonderful days, Mr. Thane,—when those two children were growing up." She sighed. "David is four years older than Alix, but ever since she was a tiny child she seemed older than he was. I guess it was because he was so big and strong that he just couldn't bear to lord it over her like most boys do with girls. He was kind of like a big shepherd dog. Always watching over her and—dear me, I'll never forget the time they got lost in the woods up above here. That was when she was about seven. They were not found till next morning. We had everybody for miles around beating the woods for them all night long. Well, sir, that boy had taken off his coat and put it on her, and his stockings too, and he had even removed his shirt to make a sort of muffler to wrap around her throat, because she always had sore throats and croup when she was a child. And when the men found them, he was sitting up against a tree sound asleep, almost frozen stiff, with her in his lap and his cold little arms around her. It was late in September and the nights were cold. Then there was the time when she fell off the side of the ferry boat and he jumped in after her,—with his best suit on, the little rascal,—and held her up till Josh Wilson stopped the ferry and old Mr. White, who was crossing with his team, managed to throw a buggy rein out to him and pull him in. The water out there in the middle of the river is ten feet deep, Mr. Thane, and David was just learning how to swim. And they BOTH had croup that night. My goodness, I thought that boy was going to die. But, my land, that seems ages ago. Here they are, a grown, man and woman, and probably don't even remember those happy days."
"That's the horrible penalty one pays for growing up, Mrs. Strong."
"I guess you're right. Of course, they write to each other every once in a while,—but nothing is like it used to be. Alix had a letter from Davy only a day or so ago. You'd think she might occasionally tell me some of the things he writes about,—but she never does. She never opens her mouth about them. And he never writes anything to me about what she writes to him. I suppose that's the way of the world. When they were little they used to come to me with everything.
"You see, I came here to keep house for Mr. Windom soon after old Maria Bliss died. My husband died when David was six years old. Alix was only four years old when I came here, Mr. Thane. This house was new,—just finished. I'll never forget the rage Mr. Windom got into when he found out that Alix and David were going up to the old farmhouse where her mother died and were using one of the upstairs rooms as a 'den.' They got in through a cellar window, it seems. They were each writing a novel, and that was where they worked and read what they had written to each other. That lasted only about six weeks or so before Mr. Windom found out about it. He was terrible. You see, without knowing it, they had picked out the room that was most sacred to him. It was his wife's own room,—where she died and where Alix's mother was born and where she also died,—and where our Alix was born.
"Of course, at that time nobody knew about Edward Crown. We all thought he was alive somewhere. The children never went there again. No, sirree! They both ought to have known better than to go at all. Alix was fifteen years old when that happened, and Davy was going to college in the winter time."
"Did your son live here in the house with you all those years?" inquired Courtney.
"We lived in the first cottage down the lane from here. Mr. Windom was a very thoughtful man. He did not want me to live here in the house with him because of what people might say. You see, I was a young woman then, and—well, people are not always kind, you know." She spoke simply and without the slightest embarrassment.
He looked hard at her half-averted face and was suddenly confronted by the realization that this grey, motherly woman must have been young once, like Alix, and pretty. As it is with the young, he could not think of her except as old. He had always thought of his mother as old; it was impossible to think of her as having once been young and gay like the girls he knew. Yes, Mrs. Strong must have been young and pretty and desirable,—somebody's sweetheart, somebody's "girl." The thought astonished him.
Shortly afterward he took his departure. There was a frown of annoyance on his brow as he strode briskly up the lane in the direction of the crossroads, half a mile or more above the village. As usual, he thought aloud.
"There's no way of finding out just how things stand between them. The old lady doesn't know anything, that's a cinch. If she really knew she would have let it out to me. I'll never get a better chance to pump her than I had today. She doesn't know. You can see she hopes her son will get her. That's as plain as the nose on your face. But she doesn't know anything. Is that a good sign or a bad one? I wish I knew. Alix isn't the sort to forget. Maybe Strong has gotten over it and not she. It's darned aggravating, that's what it is. There must be some good reason why she's never married. I wonder if she's still keen about him. This talk of Charlie Webster's may be plain bunk. If she hates him,—why? That's the question. WHY does she hate him? There must be some reason beside that debt he owed to old Windom. Gad, I wish I could have seen that letter he wrote her when he sent the cheque. Well, anyhow, it's up to me to get busy. That's sure!"
His walk took him past the Windomville Cemetery and up the gravel turnpike leading to the city. Alix had traversed this road an hour or so earlier. Swinging around a bend in the highway, he came in view of the abandoned farmhouse half a mile ahead.
It was a familiar object by this time, for he had passed it many times, not only on his solitary walks but on several occasions with Alix. The desolate house, with its weed-grown yard, its dilapidated paling fence, its atmosphere of decay, had always possessed a certain fascination for him. He secretly confessed to a queer little sensation as of awe whenever he looked upon the empty, green-shuttered house. It suggested death. More than once he had paused in the road below the rickety gate to gaze intently at the closed windows, or to scrutinize the tangled mass of weeds and rose bushes that almost hid the porch and its approach from view. He was never without the strange feeling that the body of Edward Crown might still be lying at the foot of the hidden steps.
Now he approached the place with a new and deeper interest. Strangely enough, it had been shorn within the hour of much that was grim and terrifying. It was no longer a house to inspire dread and uneasiness. Two young and venturesome spirits had invaded its silent precincts, there to dream in safety and seclusion, unhaunted by its spectres, undisturbed by its secret. In one of its darkened rooms they had set up a "workshop," a "playhouse." A glaze came over his eyes as he wondered what had transpired in that room during the surreptitious six weeks' tenancy. Had David Strong kissed her? Had she kissed David Strong? Were promises made and futures planned? His throat was tight with the swell of jealousy.
He stopped at the gate. After a moment's hesitation he lifted the rusty latch and jerked the gate open far enough to allow him to squeeze through. Then he paused to sweep the landscape with an inquiring eye. Far up the pike a load of fodder moved slowly. There were cattle in the pasture near at hand, but no human being to observe his actions. In a distant upland field men were moving among a multitude of corn-shocks, trailing the horses and wagons that belonged to Alix Crown. Crows cawed in the trees on the eastern edge of the strip of meadowland, and on high soared two or three big birds,—hawks or buzzards, he knew not which,—circling slowly in the arc of the steel blue sky.
Confident that he was unobserved, he made his way up the half-buried walk to the porch, and, deliberately mounting the steps, tried the door-knob. As he expected, the door was locked. After another searching look in all directions, he started off through the tangle of weeds and burdocks to circle the house. He passed through what once must have been the tennis-court of Alix the First,—now a weedy patch,—and came to the back door. Below him lay the deserted stables and outbuildings, facing the barnyard in which a few worn-out farm implements were to be seen, weather-beaten skeletons of a past generation.
There was no sign of human life. A lean and threadbare scarecrow flapped his ragged coat-sleeves in the wind that swept across the barren garden patch farther up the slope,—this was the nearest approach to human life that came within the range of vision. And as if to invite jovial companionship, this pathetic gentleman wore his ancient straw hat cocked rakishly over what would have been his left ear if he had had any ears at all.
While standing before the gate, Courtney had come to a sudden, amazing decision. He resolved to enter and explore the house if it were possible to do so. He remembered that Mrs. Strong, in pursuing the subject, had declared that Alix and David were not even permitted to return to the house for their literary products; moreover, she doubted very much whether the former had taken the trouble to recover them after she became sole possessor of the property. If they were still there, with other tangible proofs of an adolescent intimacy, he saw no reason why he should not lay eyes,—or even hands,—upon them. He saw no wrong in the undertaking. It was a justifiable adventure, viewed from the standpoint of a lover whose claim was in doubt.
The back door was locked and the window shutters securely nailed. Entrance to the cellar was barred by heavy scantlings fastened across the sloping hatch. In the barnyard he found a stout single-tree. With this he succeeded in prying off the two scantlings. The staple holding the padlock was easily withdrawn from one of the rotten boards.
Descending the steps, he found himself in the small, musty cellar. The vault-like room was empty save for a couple of barrels standing in a corner and a small pile of firewood under the stairs that led to regions above. Selecting a faggot of kindling-wood from this pile, he fashioned a torch by whittling the end into a confusion of partially detached slivers. This he lighted with a match, and then mounted the stairs.
The door at the head opened at the lifting of an old-fashioned latch. A thick screen of cobwebs almost closed the upper half of the aperture. He burnt it away with the flaming torch, and passed on into the kitchen. He was grateful for the snapping fire of the faggot, for otherwise the silence of the grave would have fallen about him as he stood motionless for a moment peering about the empty room. No light penetrated from the outside. The air was dead. Spiders had clothed the corners and the ceiling with their silk, over which the dust of years lay thick and ugly. He felt, with a queer little shiver, that the eyes of a thousand spiders peered gloatingly down upon him from the murky fastnesses.
He hurried on. The rooms on the lower floor had been stripped of all signs of habitation. His footsteps resounded throughout the house. Boards creaked under his tread. Without actually realizing what he was doing, he began to tiptoe toward the stairway that led to the upper floor. He laughed at himself for this precaution, and yet could not rid himself of the feeling that some one was listening, that the stealth of the midnight burglar was necessary. The stairs groaned under his weight, the dust-covered banister cracked loudly when he laid his hand upon it. He had the strange notion that they were sounding the alarm to some guardian occupant of the premises,—to a slumbering ghost perhaps.
He came at last to the room where Alix and David had played at book-writing. In the centre stood a kitchen table, on either side of which was a rudely constructed bench,—evidently the handiwork of David Strong. Two strips of rag carpet served as a rug. At each end of the table was a candlestick containing a half-used tallow candle. There was a single ink pot, but there were two penholders beside it, and a couple of blue blotters. Nearby were two ancient but substantial rocking chairs,—singularly out of place,—no doubt discarded survivors of long-distant days of comfort, rescued from an attic storeroom by the young trespassers. A scrap basket, half-full of torn and crumpled sheets of paper, stood conveniently near the table.
He lighted both of the candles and extinguished the flickering faggot. The steady glow of the candlelight filled the room. On the mantel above the blackened fireplace he saw a small, white framed mirror. A forgotten pair of gloves lay beside it, and two or three hairpins. He picked up the gloves, slapped them against his leg to rid them of accumulated dust, and then stuck them into his coat pocket. They were long and slim and soiled by wear.
A closet door, standing partly open, drew him across the room. Hanging from one of the hooks was a moth-eaten vicuna smoking jacket of blue. Beside this garment hung a girl's bright red blazer, with black collar; protecting, business-like paper cuffs were still attached. In the corner of the closet reposed a broom, a mop and an empty pail.
He smiled at the thought of young Alix sweeping and scrubbing the floor of this sequestered retreat.
Returning to the table, he pulled out the drawer, and there, side by side, lay two neat but far from voluminous manuscripts, each weighted down by the unused portion of the scratch pad from which the written sheets had been torn. One was in the bold, superior scrawl of a boy, the other ineffably feminine in its painstaking regard for legibility and tidiness.
These literary efforts had been cut off short in their infancy. David's vigorously written pages, marred by frequent scratchings and erasures, far outnumbered Alix's. He was in the midst of Chapter Three of a novel entitled "The Phantom Singer" when the calamitous interruption came. Alix's work had progressed to Chapter Five. Inspection revealed the further fact that she was thrifty. She had written on both sides of the sheets, while the prodigal David confined himself to the inexorable "one side of the sheet only." There were unmistakable indications of editorial arrogance on the part of Alix on every sheet of David's manuscript. Her small, precise hand was to be seen here, there and everywhere,—sometimes in the substitution of a single word, often in the rewriting of an entire sentence. But nowhere on her own pages was to be found so much as a scratch by the clumsy hand of her fellow novelist.
Her story bore the fetching title: "Lady Mordaunt's Lover."
Courtney read the first page of her script. A sudden wave of remorse, even guilt, swept through him. Back in his mind he pictured her bending studiously, earnestly to the task, her heart in every line she was penning, her dear little brow wrinkled in thought. He could almost visualize the dark, wavy hair, the soft white neck,—as if he were standing behind looking down upon her as she struggled with an obstinate muse,—and the quick, gentle rise and fall of her young breast. He could see her lift her head now and then to stare dreamily at the ceiling, searching there for inspiration. He could see the cramped, tense fingers that gripped the pen as she wrote these precious lines,—with David scratching away laboriously at the opposite end of the table. A strange tenderness entered his soul. Something akin to reverence took possession of him. He had invaded sanctuary.
Slowly, almost tenderly, he replaced the manuscript in the drawer beside its bristling mate. Then he resolutely closed the drawer, blew out the candles, and strode swiftly from the room and down the creaking stairs, lighting the way with matches. Even as he convicted himself of wrong, he justified himself as right. The virtuous renunciation balanced, aye, overbalanced,—the account with cupidity. He was saying to himself as he made his way down to the cellar:
"It would be downright rotten to take that story of hers, even as a joke,—and I came mighty near to doing it. Thank the Lord, I didn't. Of course, it's piffle,—both of 'em,—but I just COULDN'T take hers away for no other reason than to get a good laugh out of it. Anyhow, my conscience is clear. I put it back where she left it,—and that's the end of it so far as I'm concerned. Damn these cobwebs! Good Lord, I wonder if any of these spiders are poisonous!"
Brushing the cobwebs from his face as he ran, he hurried across the cellar and bolted up the steps, out into the brilliant sunlight. He made frantic efforts to remove the disgusting webs from his garments, his eyes darting everywhere in search of the evil insects.
Presently he set to work replacing the staple and padlock, inserting the nails in the holes they had left in the rotting board. He did his best to fasten the scantlings down, making a sorry job of it, and then, as he prepared to leave the premises, he was suddenly seized by the uncanny feeling that some one was watching him. His gaze swept the fields, the barn lot, even the high grass that surrounded the house. There was no one in sight, and yet he could FEEL the eyes of an invisible watcher.
Up in the garden patch, the scarecrow flapped his empty sleeves. His hat was still tilted jauntily over his absent ear. It was ridiculous to suppose that that uncanny object could see,—yet somehow it seemed to Courtney that it WAS looking at him, looking at him with malicious, accusing eyes.
Not once, but half a dozen times, he turned in the road to glance over his shoulder at the house he had left behind. Always his gaze went to the scarecrow. He shivered slightly and cursed himself for a fool. The silly thing COULDN'T be looking at him! What nonsense! Still he breathed a sigh of relief when he turned the bend and was safely screened from view by the grove of oaks that crowned the hill above the village.
Several automobiles passed him as he trudged along the pike; an old man afoot driving a little herd of sheep gave him a cheery "good morning," but received no response.
"I wish I hadn't gone into that beastly house," he was repeating to himself, a scowl in his eyes. "It gave me the 'Willies.' Jolly lot of satisfaction I got out of it,—I don't think. I daresay he kissed her a good many times up there in that,—But, Lord, what's the sense of worrying about something that happened ten years ago?"
At the dinner table that noon, Charlie Webster suddenly inquired:
"Well, what have YOU been up to this morning, Court?"
Courtney started guiltily and shot a quick, inquiring look at the speaker. Satisfied that there was no veiled significance in Charlie's question, he replied:
"Took a long ramble up the pike. The air is like wine today. I walked out as far as the old Windom house."
Charlie was interested. "Is that so? Did you see Amos Vick's daughter hanging around the place?"
"Amos Vick's—you mean Rosabel?" He swallowed hard. "No, I didn't see her. Was she over there?"
"Jim Bagley was in the office half an hour or so ago. As he was coming past the house in his Ford he saw her standing at the front gate, so he stopped and asked her what she was doing over on this side of the river. She'd been over here spending the night with Annie Jordan,—that's Phil Jordan's girl, you know, the township assessor,—and went out for a long walk this morning. She looked awful tired and sort of sickly, so Jim told her to hop in and he'd give her a lift back to Phil's house. She got in with him and he left her at Phil's."
"I saw her walking down to the ferry with Annie as I was coming over from the office a little while ago," said Doc Simpson.
"Sorry I didn't meet her," said Courtney. "She's jolly good fun,—and I certainly was in need of somebody to cheer me up this morning. For the first time since I came out here I was homesick for New York,—and mother. It must have been our talk last night about the theatres and all that."
WORDS AND LETTEBS
Mary Blythe and her brother arrived on Tuesday for a two days' visit. Alix motored to town and brought them out in the automobile. She was surprised and gratified when Courtney, revoking his own decree, volunteered to go up with her to meet the visitors at the railway station in the city. But when the day came, he was ill and unable to leave his room. The cold, steady rains of the past few days had brought on an attack of pleurisy, and the doctor ordered him to remain in bed. He grumbled a great deal over missing the little dinner Alix was giving on the first night of their stay, and sent more than one lamentation forth in the shape of notes carried up to the house on the knoll by Jim House, the venerable handy-man at Dowd's Tavern.
"I really don't recall him," said Addison Blythe, frowning thoughtfully. "He probably came to the sector after I left, Miss Crown. I've got a complete roster at home of all the fellows who served in the American Ambulance up to the time it was taken over. I'd like to meet him. I may have run across him any number of times. Names didn't mean much, you see, except in cases where we hung out together in one place for some time. I would remember his face, of course. Faces made impressions, and that's more than names did. Courtney Thane? Seems to me I have a vague recollection of that name. You say he was afterward flying with the British?"
"Yes. He was wounded and gassed at—at—let me think. What was the name of the place? Only a few weeks before the armistice."
"There was a great deal doing a few weeks before the armistice," said Blythe, smiling. "You'll have to be a little more definite than that. The air was full of British aeroplanes from London clear to Palestine. What is he doing here?"
"Recovering his health. He has had two attacks of pneumonia, you see,—and a touch of typhoid. His family originally lived in this country. The old Thane farm is almost directly across the river from Windomville. Courtney's father was born there, but went east to live during the first Cleveland administration. He had some kind of a political appointment in Washington, and married a Congressman's daughter from Georgia, I think—anyhow, it was one of the Southern states. He is really quite fascinating, Mary. You would lose your heart to him, I am sure."
"And, pray, have you offered any reward for yours?" inquired Mary Blythe, smiling as she studied her friend's face rather narrowly.
Alix met her challenging gaze steadily. A sharper observer than Mary Blythe might have detected the faintest shadow of a cloud in the dark, honest eyes.
"When I lose it, dear, I shall say 'good riddance' and live happily ever after without one," she replied airily.
The next morning she started off with her guests for a drive down the river, to visit the old fort and the remains of the Indian village. Stopping at the grain elevator, she beckoned to Charlie Webster. The fat little manager came bustling out, beaming with pleasure.
"How is Mr. Thane today, Charlie?" she inquired, after introducing him to the Blythes.
Charlie pursed his lips and looked wise. "Well, all I can say is, he's doing as well as could be expected. Temperature normal, pulse fluctuating, appetite good, respiration improved by a good many cusswords, mustard plaster itching like all get out,—but otherwise he's at the point of death. I was in to see him after breakfast. He was sitting up in bed and getting ready to tell Doc Smith what he thinks of him for ordering him to stay in the house till he says he can go out. He is terribly upset because he can't get up to Alix's to see you, Mr. Blythe. I never saw a feller so cut up about a thing as he is."
"He must not think of coming out in this kind of weather," cried Alix firmly. "It would be—"
"Oh, he's not thinking of coming out," interrupted Charlie quietly.
"I am sorry not to have met him," said Blythe. "We probably have a lot of mutual friends."
A queer little light flashed into Charlie Webster's eyes and lingered for an instant.
"He's terribly anxious to meet you. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he got up today sometime and in spite of Doc Smith hustled over to call on you. I'll tell you what we might do, Alix. If Mr. Blythe isn't going to be too busy, I might take him up to see Court,—that is, when you get back from your drive. I know he'll appreciate it, and be tickled almost to death."
"Fine!" cried Blythe. "If you're sure he will not mind, Mr. Webster."
"Why should he mind? He says he's crazy to meet you, and he's able to see people—"
"But I've always understood that talking was very painful to any one suffering from pleurisy," protested Alix.
"Doesn't seem to hurt Court very much," declared Charlie. "He nearly talked an arm off of me and Furman Hatch this morning,—and it certainly seemed to be a real pleasure for him to cuss. I really think he'll get well quicker if you drop in for a chat with him, Mr. Blythe."
"It would be very nice," said Alix warmly, "if you could run in for a few minutes—"
"Sure I will," cried the young man. "This afternoon, Mr. Webster,—about half-past two?"
"Any time suits me," said the obliging Mr. Webster. As if struck by something irresistibly funny, he suddenly put his hand to his mouth and got very red in the face. After an illy-suppressed snort or two, he coughed violently, and then stammered: "Excuse me. I was just thinking about—er—about something funny. I'm always doing some fool thing like that. This was about Ed Jones's dog,—wouldn't be the least bit funny to anybody but me, so I won't tell you about it. Two-thirty it is, then? I'll meet you up at Alix's. It's only a step."
"Will you tell Mr. Thane that you are bringing Mr. Blythe to see him this afternoon, Charlie?" said Alix. "You said he was threatening to disobey the doctor's—"
"You leave it to me, Alix," broke in Charlie reassuringly. "Trust me to see that he don't escape."
A little before two-thirty, tall Mr. Blythe, one time Captain in the Field Artillery, and short Mr. Webster wended their way through the once busy stableyard in the rear of Dowd's Tavern. Charlie gave his companion a brief history of the Tavern and indicated certain venerable and venerated objects of interest,—such as the ancient log watering-trough (hewn in 1832); the rain-barrels, ash-hoppers and fodder cribs (dating back to Civil War days), the huge kettle suspended from a thick iron bar the ends of which were supported by rusty standards, where apple-butter was made at one season of the year, lye at another, and where lard was rendered at butchering-time. He took him into the wagon-shed and showed him the rickety high-wheeled, top-heavy carriage used by the first of the Dowds back in the forties, now ready to fall to pieces at the slightest ungentle shake; the once gaudy sleigh with its great curved "runners"; and over in a dark corner two long barrelled rifles with rusty locks and rotten stocks, that once upon a time cracked the doom of deer and wolf and fox, of catamount and squirrel and coon, of wild turkeys and geese and ducks—to say nothing of an occasional horsethief.
"They say old man Dowd could shoot the eye out of a squirrel three hundreds yards away with one of these rifles," announced Charlie; "and it was no trick at all for him to nip a wild turkey's head off at five hundred yards. I'll bet you didn't run up against any such shooting as that over in France."
Blythe shook his head. "No such rifle shooting, I grant you. But what would you say to a German cannon twelve miles away landing ten shells in succession on a battery half as big as this stable without even being able to see the thing they were shooting at?"
"I give up," said Charlie gloomily. "Old man Dowd was SOME liar, but, my gosh, he couldn't hold a—well, my respect for the American Army is greater than it ever was, I'll say that, Captain. Dan Dowd was the rankest kind of an amateur."
"Do you mean as a shot,—or as a liar?" inquired Blythe, grinning.
"Both," said Charlie.
He had a very definite purpose in leading his guest through the stable-yard. By doing so he avoided the customary approach to the Tavern, in full view from Courtney's windows. They circled the building and arrived at the long, low porch from the north. Here they encountered Furman Hatch. Charlie appeared greatly surprised to find the photographer there.
"What are you doing here at this time o' day, Tintype?" he demanded. "Takin' a vacation?"
"I come over for some prints I left in my room last night," explained Mr. Hatch.
"We're going up to call on Court," said Charlie. "Won't you join us?"
Hatch looked at his watch, frowned dubiously, and then said he could spare a few minutes,—and that was just what it was understood in advance that he was to say!
"He goes by the name of Tintype," explained Mr. Webster, after the two men had shaken hands. "Not because he looks like one, but because the village idiot's name is Furman, and we have to have some way of tellin' them apart."
A few minutes later, Charlie knocked resoundingly on Courtney's door.
"Who is it?"
"It's me,—Charlie Webster. Got a nice surprise for you."
And in strode Charlie, followed by the tall stranger and the lank Mr. Hatch.
Courtney, full dressed,—except that he wore instead of his coat a thick blue bath gown,—was sitting at a table in front of the small wood-fire stove, playing solitaire. A saucer at one corner of the table served as an ash tray. It was half full of cigarette stubs.
"Well, what the—" he began, and then, catching sight of the stranger, scrambled up from his chair, his mouth still open.
"I thought you'd be surprised," said Charlie triumphantly. "This is Mr. Blythe, Mr. Thane,—shake hands with each other, comrades. When I told him you were so keen to see him and talk over old times, he said slap-bang he'd come with me when I offered to bring him up."
"I hope we're not intruding, Mr. Thane," said Blythe, advancing with hand extended. "Mr. Webster assured me you were quite well enough to receive—"
"I am glad you came," cried Courtney, recovering from his surprise. "Awfully good of you. These beastly lungs of mine, you know. The least little flare-up scares me stiff. Still, I had almost screwed up my nerve to going out this afternoon—"
"It doesn't pay to take any risks," warned Blythe, as they shook hands.
The two men looked each other closely, steadily in the eye. Courtney was the first to speak at the end of this mutual scrutiny.
"I wasn't quite sure whether I met you over there, Captain Blythe," he said, "but now I know that I didn't. I've been puzzling my brain for days trying to recall the name, or at least your face. I may be wrong, however. I haven't much of a memory. I hope you will forgive me if we did meet and I have forgotten it. I—"
"I have no recollection of ever having seen you, Mr. Thane," said Blythe. "It isn't surprising, however. It—it was a pretty big war, you know."
Charlie Webster was slightly dashed. If anything, Courtney Thane was more at ease, more convincing than Addison Blythe. He felt rather foolish. Something, it seemed, had fallen very flat. He evaded Mr. Hatch's eye.
"Sit down, Captain Blythe," said Courtney affably. "Hope you don't mind this bath gown. Charlie, make yourself at home on the bed,—you too, Hatch. We're as shy of chairs here as we were at the front, you see."
Blythe remained for half an hour and then went away with his two companions. Courtney shook hands with him and said good-bye at the hall door; then he strode over to the bureau to look at himself in the glass. He saw reflected therein a very well satisfied face, with brightly confident eyes and the suggestion of a triumphant smile.
Hatch accompanied the moody Mr. Webster to the warehouse office.
"Strikes me, Charlie," said he, thoughtfully, "that of the two our friend Courtney seems a long sight more genuine than this feller Blythe. I guess you're off your base, old boy. Why, darn it, he had Blythe up in the air half the time. If I was a betting man, I'd put up a hundred or two that Blythe never even saw the places they were talking about."
"Do you think Blythe is a fake?" cried Charlie in some heat.
"I wouldn't go so far as to say that," said Hatch diplomatically, "but you'll have to admit that Court asked him a lot of questions he didn't seem able to answer."
Charlie stared hard at the floor for a few seconds. Then: "Well, if I was to ask you what my mother's maiden name was, Tintype, you'd have to say you didn't know, wouldn't you?"
"Sure," said Hatch. "But I wouldn't go so far as to say I wasn't certain whether she had a maiden name or not, would I?"
"There's no use arguing with you, Hatch," said Charlie irritably, and turned to his desk by the window, there to frown fiercely over his scales book.
Alix and Miss Blythe were sitting in front of the fireplace when young Blythe entered the living-room on his return from Dowd's Tavern. The former looked up at him brightly, eagerly as he planted himself between them with his back to the cheerful blaze.
"Did you see him?" she inquired. He was struck by the deep, straining look in her dark eyes,—as if she were searching for something far back in his brain.
"Yes," he replied, as he took his pipe and tobacco pouch from his pocket. "He was up and around the room and was as pleased as Punch to see me." He began stuffing the bowl of the pipe. "He is a most attractive chap, Alix. I don't know when I've met a more agreeable fellow."
"Then you had not met before,—over there?"
"No. We missed each other by days on two or three occasions. He left for the Vosges just before I got to Pont-a-Mousson, and was transferred to another section when we all went up to Bar le Duc at the time of the Verdun drive. He joined the Ambulance several months before I did, and was shifted about a good deal. Had some trouble with a French officer at Pont-a-Mousson and asked to be transferred." Here he smiled feelingly. "He's got a mustard plaster on his back now, he says, that would cover an army mule. I know how that feels, by Jinks! I wore one for three weeks over there because I didn't have the nerve to rip it off."
He was still aware of the unanswered question in her eyes. Changing his position slightly, he busied himself with the lighting of his pipe.
"Was he expecting you?" inquired Alix.
"Not at all. It seems that your roly-poly friend forgot to notify him. I say, Alix, what a wonderful lot of pre-historic junk there is in that old stable-yard. Webster took me around there and showed me the stuff. Tell me something about the place."
Late in the afternoon Blythe,—after submitting to an interview at the hands of A. Lincoln Pollock,—sat alone before the fire, his long legs stretched out, a magazine lying idly in his lap, his pipe dead but gripped firmly in the hand that had remained stationary for a long, long time halfway to his lips. He was staring abstractedly into the neglected fire.
His sister came in. He was not aware of her entrance until she appeared directly in front of him.
"Hello!" he exclaimed, blinking.
"What is on your mind, Addy?"
He glanced over his shoulder.
"Where is Alix?"
"Writing letters. There were two or three she has to get off before we start for town." She sat down on the arm of his chair. "You may as well tell me what you really think of him, Addison. Isn't he good enough for her?"