Then it saw Yvette Hinchbrooke wrench free from Homer and run down the aisle to snatch the child from Scattergood's arms into her own.
Scattergood stood erect, looking from face to face in silence. It was a full minute before he spoke.
"There ..." he said. "You kin see the evil of passin' jedgments. You kin see the evil of old coots traffickin' in rumors.... What you've heard the boy tell is all true.... That's the girl you was ready to tar and feather and run out of town.... Now what you think of yourselves?"
It was Deacon Pettybone, blinking a mist from his watery blue eyes, who arose to the moment. "Folks," he said, huskily, "I'm goin' to pass among you directly, carryin' the collection plate. 'Tain't fer furrin missions. It's fer that child yonder—to git them legs fixed.... And standin' here I want to acknowledge to sin in public. I been hard, and lackin' in charity. I been passin' jedgments, contrairy to God's word. I been stiff-backed and obdurate, and I calc'late they's others a-sittin' here that needs prayers for forgiveness.... Now I'm a-comin' with the plate. Them that hain't prepared to give to-night kin whisper to me what they'll give to-morrer—and have no fear of my forgittin' the amounts they pledge.... And I'm askin' forgiveness of the young woman and hopin' she won't hold it ag'in' an old man—when she settles down here amongst us, like I hope she'll do."
"Like she's a-goin' to do," said Jason Locker, with a voice and air of pride. "Why, folks, that there gal is goin' to be my daughter-in-law!"
Scattergood patted Yvette on the back heavily, but jubilantly. "I've diskivered," he said, "that if you can't crack a hick'ry nut with a pad of butter, you better use a hammer.... Sometimes Coldriver's a nut needin' a sledge—but when it cracks it's full of meat."
HE TREATS AN ATTACK OF LIFE
Scattergood Baines lounged back in his armchair, reinforced by iron crosspieces to sustain his weight, and basked in the warmth from the Round Oak stove, heated to redness by the clean, dry maple within. He was drowsy. For the time he had ceased even to search for a scheme whereby he could rid his hardware stock of one dozen sixteen-pound sledge hammers acquired by him at a recent auction down in Tupper Falls. His eyes were closed and his soul was at peace.
Somebody rattled the door knob and then rapped on the door. This was so unusual a method of seeking entrance to a hardware store that Scattergood sat up abruptly, blinking.
"Wa-al," he said, tartly, "be you comin' in, or be you goin' to stand out there wagglin' that door knob all day?"
"I'm coming in, Mr. Baines, as soon as I can contrive to open the door," replied a male voice, a voice that appeared incapable of expressing impatience; a gentle voice; the voice of a man who would dream dreams but perform few actions.
"Um!... It's you, hey? What d'you allus carry books under your arm for? How d'you calculate to be able to open doors, with both hands full?"
The knob turned at last, and Nahum Pound, long schoolmaster in the little district school on Hiper Hill, came in hesitatingly, clutching with each arm half a dozen books which struggled to escape with the ingenuity of inanimate objects. Nahum's hair was white; his face was vague—lovably vague.... A man of considerable, if confused, learning, he was.
"Well?" said Scattergood. "Got suthin' on to your mind? Commence unloadin' it before it busts your back."
"It's Sarah," said Nahum, helplessly.
"Um!... Sairy, eh? What's Sairy up to?"
"I don't seem to gather, Mr. Baines. She's—she's difficult. Something seems to be working in her head."
"Twenty-two, hain't she? Twenty-two?... Prob'ly a number of things a-workin' in her head. Got any special symptoms?"
"She—she wants to leave home, Mr. Baines." Nahum said this with mild amazement. His amazement would have been no greater—and not a whit less mild—had his daughter announced her intention to swim from New York to Liverpool, or to marry the chef of the Czar of Russia.
"Um!... Can't say's that's onnatural—so's to require callin' in a doctor. Live five mile from town, don't you? Nearest neighbor nigh on to a mile. Sairy gits to see company only about so often or not so seldom as that, eh?" Scattergood shut his eyes until there appeared at the corners of them a network of little wrinkles. "I'm a-goin' to astonish you, Nahum. This here hain't the first girl that ever come down with the complaint Sairy's got!... They's been sev'ral. Complaint's older 'n you or me.... Dum near as old as Deacon Pettybone. Uh-huh!... She's got a attack of life, Nahum, and the only cure for it ever discovered is to let her live.... Sairy's woke up out of childhood, Nahum. She's jest openin' her eyes. Perty soon she'll be stirrin' around brisk.... When you goin' to drive her in, Nahum? To-morrer?"
"You—you advise letting her do this thing?"
"When you goin' to fetch her in, Nahum?" Scattergood repeated.
"She said she was coming Monday."
"Um!... G'-by, Nahum." This was Scattergood's invariable phrase of dismissal, given to friend or enemy alike. It was characteristic of him that when he was through with a conversation he ended it—and left no doubt in anybody's mind that it was ended. Nahum withdrew apologetically. Scattergood called after him, "Fetch her here—to me," he said, and, automatically, it seemed, reached for the laces of his shoes. A problem had been presented to him which required a deal of solving, and Scattergood could not concentrate with toes imprisoned in leather. He even removed the white woolen socks which Mandy, his wife, compelled him to wear in the winter season. Presently he was twiddling his pudgy toes and concentrating on Sarah Pound. He waggled his head. "After livin' out there," he said to himself, "she'll think Coldriver's livin'—and so 'tis, so 'tis.... More sometimes 'n 'tis others. Calculate this is like to be one of 'em...."
Scattergood was just thinking about dinner on Monday when Nahum Pound brought his daughter Sarah into the store. One glance at Sarah's face taught Scattergood that she was in suspicious, if not defiant, mood. If he had a doubt of the correctness of his observation, Sarah removed it efficiently.
"Scattergood Baines," she said, "if you think you're going to boss me like you do father, and everybody else in this town, you're mistaken. I won't have it.... Understand that, I won't have it."
Scattergood rubbed his chin and puffed out his fat cheeks, and smiled with deceiving mildness. "Sairy," he said, "you needn't to be scairt of my interferin' with you in your goin's and comin's. I'd sooner stick my hand into a kittle of b'ilin' pitch than to meddle with a young woman in your state of mind.... I hain't hankerin' to raise no blisters."
"I won't stay penned up 'way out there in the country another day. I've got a right to live. I've got a right to see folks and to go places, and—to—to live!"
"To be sure.... To be sure. Jest itchin' to kick the top bar off'n the pasture fence. Most certain you got a right to live, and nobody hain't goin' to hender you ... least of all me. But there's jest one observation I'd sort of like to let loose of, and that's this: Your life's a whole lot like one of your arms and legs—easy busted. To be sure, it kin be put in splints and mended up ag'in, but maybe you'll go limpy or knit crooked so's nothin' kin keep the busted place from showin'. Bearin' that in mind, if I was you, I wouldn't be too careless about scramblin' up into places where you was apt to git a fall.... I calc'late, Sairy, that it's better to miss the view than to fall out of the tree...."
"I'm going to see the view if I fall out of every tree I climb," Sarah said, hotly.
"Don't object if I find you a boardin' house?"
"I'm going to board with Grandma Penny that was—Mrs. Spackles."
Scattergood nodded. "G'-by, Sairy.... G'-by, Nahum." He watched father and daughter leave the store with a twinkle in his eyes, not a twinkle of humor, but the twinkle that always came when his interest in life, always keen, was aroused to a point where it tingled. "Calc'late to be kep' busy—more 'n ordinary busy," he offered as an opinion to be digested by the Round Oak stove. Presently he added: "She's perty ... and bein' perty is kind of a remarkable thing ... bein' perty and young.... Don't seem like God ought to hold folks accountable fer bein' young, nor yet fer bein' good to look at ... but they's times when it seems like He does...." On his way back to the store after dinner, Scattergood stopped at the bank corner, hesitated a moment, and then mounted the stairs to the offices above. A door bearing the legend, "Robert Allen, Attorney at Law," admitted him to a large, bare office, such as one finds in such towns as Coldriver.
"Howdy, Bob?" said Scattergood.
"Good day, Mr. Baines," said the young man behind the desk, who had suddenly pretended to be very much occupied with important matters as his door opened.
"Um!... Busy time, eh? Better come back later."
"No. No, indeed. Take this chair right here, Mr. Baines. What can I do for you?"
"Depends. Uh-huh! Depends.... Calc'late to make a perty good livin', Bob?"
"Studied it yourself, didn't you—out of books? No college?"
"Hard work, wasn't it? Mighty hard work?"
"It might have been easier," said Bob, wondering what Scattergood was getting at.
"Like to be prosecutin' attorney for this county, Bob?"
Prosecuting attorney! With a salary of twenty-five hundred dollars a year—and the prestige! Bob strove valiantly to maintain a look of dignified interest, but with ill success.
"I—I might consider it. Yes, I would consider it."
"Um!... Figgered you would," said Scattergood, dryly. "Hain't got no help in the office," he observed. "Need some, don't you? Somebody to write letters and sort of look after things, eh?"
"Why—er—I've never thought about it."
"If you was to think about it, you'd calc'late on payin' about six dollars a week, wouldn't you?" Bob swallowed hard. Six dollars a week was a great deal of money to this young man, just embarking on the practice of his profession. "Guess that would be about right," he said.
"Got anybody in mind, Bob? Thinkin' of anybody specific for the place?"
Bob shook his head.
"Um!... Nahum Pound's daughter's boardin' with Grandma Penny, that's now Mis' Spackles. All-fired perty girl, Bob. Don't call to mind no pertier. Sairy's her name.... G'-by, Bob. G'-by."
He walked to the door, but paused. "About that six dollars, Bob—I was figgerin' on payin' that out of my own pocket."
Bob Allen was not accustomed to the oversight of employees—least of all to an employee who was very satisfying to look at, who was winsomely young, whose mere presence distracted his thoughts from that rigorous concentration upon the logical principles of the law.... He did not know what to do with Sarah once he had hired her, and it required so much of his time and brain power to think up something for her to do that it is fortunate his practice was neither large nor arduous. It is no mean tribute to the young man that he kept Sarah so busy with apparently necessary matters that she had no occasion to doubt the authenticity of her employment.
Bob faced a second difficulty, due to his inexperience, and that was that he was at a loss how to comport himself toward Sarah, as to how friendly he should be, and as to how much he should maintain a certain grave dignity and reserve in his dealings with her. This was a matter which need not have troubled him, for Nature has a way of taking into her own keeping the bearing of young men toward young women when the two are thrown much into each other's company. Propinquity is a tremendous force in the life of humanity. It has caused as many love affairs as the kicking of other men's dogs has caused street fights—which numbers into infinity. Consequently, while Bob worried much and selected a number of widely differing attitudes—a thing which caused Sarah some uneasiness and no little speculation as to what sort of disposition her employer possessed—the solution lay not with him at all. It took care of itself.
Scattergood noted the significance of symptoms. He made a mental memorandum of the fact that Bob Allen was seldom to be seen among the post-office loafers; that Bob preferred his office to any other spot; that Bob had ordered a new suit from a city tailor; that Bob wore a constant air of anxiety and excitement, and—most expressive symptom of all for a Coldriver young man—he became interested in residence property, in lots, and in the cost of erecting dwellings.... Scattergood looked in vain for reciprocal symptoms to be shown by Sarah. But Sarah was a woman. What symptoms she exhibited were meaningless even to Scattergood.
"Bob," said Scattergood, one auspicious day, "got any pref'rence for prosecutin' attorneys—married or single?"
"It depends," said Bob, cautiously.
"Um!... How's Sairy behavin', Bob?"
"She's—she's—" Bob became incoherent, and then speechless.
"Calc'late I foller you, Bob.... Git your point of view exact.... About prosecutin' attorneys, Bob, I prefer 'em married."
"Mr. Baines," said Bob, "if I could get Sarah Pound to marry me, I wouldn't give a tinker's dam who was prosecutor."
"Mishandlin' of fact sim'lar to that," said Scattergood, dryly, "has been done nigh on to a billion times.... Any idee how Sairy stands on sich a proposition?"
"She's about equally fond of me and the letter press," said Bob, dolefully.
"Good sign," said Scattergood. Then after a short pause: "Say, Bob, still rent out drivin' bosses at the livery?... G'-by, Bob."
Bob was astonished to find how easy it is to ask a girl to go driving the second time—after you have spent an anxious, dubious, fearsome day screwing up your courage to ask her the first time. He was delighted, too, because he even fancied Sarah now discriminated between him and the letter press—in his favor. Bob came fresh and unsophisticated to the business in hand, which was courtship. Sarah had never before been courted, but she recognized a courtship when she saw it at such close range, and found it delightfully exciting. Bob did his clumsy, earnest, honest best, and Sarah, somewhat to her surprise, became more satisfied with the universe and with her share in its destinies.... In short, matters were progressing as nature intended they should progress, and Scattergood felt almost that they might be trusted to go forward to a satisfactory denouement without his interference.
Then old Solon Beatty died!
This solved one of Bob Allen's problems; it furnished plenty of authentic work for Sarah Pound—for Bob was retained as attorney for old Solon's estate, which he found to be in an amazing state of confusion. Old Solon left behind him, reluctantly, property of divers kinds, and in numerous localities, valued at upward of a hundred thousand dollars, split and invested into as many enterprises and mortgages and savings accounts as there were dollars! This made work. There were papers to sort and list, to file and to schedule—clerical work in abundance. It interfered with the more important business of courtship, but even in this respect it was not without a certain value.
"Who's going to get all this money?" Sarah asked, one morning after she had been listing mortgages until her head ached with the sight of figures and descriptions. "Does Mary Beatty get it all?"
"Not unless we find a will somewhere. Everybody thought Solon's niece—which is Mary Beatty—would get the whole estate. Solon intended it should go that way, and the Lord knows she's worked for him and nursed him and coddled him enough to deserve it. Gave her whole life up to the old codger ... But we can't find a will, and so she won't get but half. The rest goes to Solon's nephew, Farley Curtis ... under the statute of descent and distribution, you know," he finished, learnedly.
"Farley Curtis.... I never heard of him."
"He's never been here—at least not for years. But he'll be along now. We're due to see him soon."
"Correct," said a voice from the door, which had opened silently. In it stood a young man of dress and demeanor not indigenous to Coldriver. "You're due to see Farley Curtis—so you behold him. Look me over carefully. I was due—therefore I arrive." The young man laughed pleasantly, as if he intended his words to be regarded as whimsical, yet, somehow, Bob felt the whimsicality to be surface deep; that Curtis was a young man with much confidence in himself, who felt that if he were due he would inevitably arrive.
"Mr. Allen, I suppose," said Curtis, extending his hand. "I am told you are handling the legal affairs of my late uncle's estate."
Sarah Pound eyed the newcomer, and as the young men shook hands compared them, to Bob Allen's disadvantage. To inexperience any comparison must be to Bob's disadvantage, for Curtis was handsome, dressed with taste, and gifted with a worldly certainty of manner and an undeniable charm. Sarah had never encountered all these attributes in a single individual. She drew on her reading of fiction and knew at once that she was in the presence of that wonderful creature she had seen described so frequently—a gentleman. As for Bob Allen, he was big, rugged, careless of dress, kindly, without pretense of polish.... And besides, to Curtis's advantage there attached to him a certain literary glamour—of heirship—and a mystery due to his sudden appearance out of the great unknown that lay beyond the confines of Coldriver.
"I am in the dark," said Curtis. "All I know is that Uncle Solon is dead. It is proper I should come to you for information, is it not? For instance, there is no harm in asking if there is a will?"
"None has been found," said Bob, not graciously. He had taken a dislike to this stranger instinctively, a dislike which increased at an amazing pace as he noted Curtis's eyes cast admiring glances upon Sarah Pound.
"In which case," said the young man, "I suppose I may regard myself as an interested party."
"Yourself and Miss Beatty are the heirs—so far as has been determined."
"You have searched all my uncle's papers?"
"We have gone through them, but not so thoroughly as to reach a final conclusion. He was a peculiar old man."
"And no will has been found? No—other papers—" Curtis smiled deprecatingly. "It is only natural I should be interested," he said, and smiled at Sarah.
"Was there anything special you wanted to ask?"
"Only if there was a will—or other paper." There was a curious hesitation in Farley Curtis's voice as he spoke the last two words. "I'm glad, of course, there's not.... Thank you. Think I'll stay in town till the thing is settled up. Probably see you often. Pleased to have met you." He included Sarah in the bow with which he took his leave.
For a few days Farley Curtis lived at the Coldriver House, then moved to Grandmother Penny's, where Sarah Pound boarded. Secretly Bob Allen was furious, without apparent cause. He had no reason to draw conclusions, for boarding houses were scarce in Coldriver. What Sarah thought of the event was not so easily discovered.
Bob would naturally have discussed immediately the significance of Farley Curtis's arrival in Coldriver, with Scattergood, for everybody in Coldriver went to Scattergood with whatever important occurrence that befell, but Scattergood was absent on a political mission. When he returned Bob lost no time in laying the matter before him.
"Um!... Calculated he'd turn up. Natural.... Acted kind of anxious, eh? What was it he said about a will—or somethin'?"
Bob repeated Curtis's conversation minutely.
"Um!... That young man didn't suspect—he knew," said Scattergood, reaching automatically for his shoes. "What he wanted to know was—has it been found?... Um!... Not a will. Somethin'. Somethin' he's afraid of bein' found.... Hain't the kind of feller I'd like to see spendin' old Solon's money.... Guess you and me'll go through them papers ag'in."
So with minute care Bob and Scattergood examined the documents and memoranda and receipts and accounts of Solon Beatty, but no will, no minute reference to Farley Curtis, was discovered. They went again to Solon's house to question Mary and to rummage there with the hope of falling upon some such hiding place as the queer old man might have chosen as the safe depository of his will. Mary Beatty was not helpful; middle-aged, with wasted youth behind her; she was even resentful that her meticulous housekeeping should be disturbed.
Scattergood and Bob sat down in the parlor, discouraged. It was evident there was no will. Solon had neglected to attend to that matter until it was too late.... Scattergood wiggled his feet uneasily and stared at the motto over the door.
"Solon didn't run much to religion," he observed.
"No," said Mary Beatty.
"Um!... Have a Bible, maybe? One of them big ones?"
"Up in his room, Mr. Baines. It always laid on the table there—unopened."
"Opened it yourself lately, Mary? Been readin' the Scriptures out of that p'tic'lar book?"
"Um!... Got a kind of a hankerin' to read a verse or two," said Scattergood. "Come on, Bob. You 'n' me'll peruse Solon's Bible some."
The huge Bible with its Dore illustrations lay on the marble-topped table in old Solon's bedroom. Scattergood opened it—found it stiff with lack of use, its pages clinging together as if their gilt edging had never been broken.... Bob leaned over Scattergood while the old man rapidly thumbed the pages.... He brought to light a pressed flower, and shrugged his shoulders. What moment of softness in the life of a hard old man did this flower commemorate?... A letter whose ink was faded to illegibility! Even Solon Beatty had once known the rose-leaf scent of romance.
"Nothing there," said Bob.
"The reason folks seldom find things," said Scattergood, "is that they say 'Nothin' there' before they've half looked.... They might be any quantity of things in this Bible that we hain't overhauled yet." The old man stood a moment frowning down at the book. "Births and deaths," he said to himself. "Births and deaths—and marryin's...." Rapidly he turned to the illumined pages on which were set down the family records of the Beattys. "Um!... Jest sich a place as he'd pick out.... What you make of this, Bob?"
Scattergood loosened a sheet of paper which had been lightly glued to the page. "Hain't got my specs, Bob."
The young lawyer read it, re-read it aloud. "I, Farley Curtis, one of the two legal heirs of Solon Beatty, of Coldriver Township, do hereby acknowledge the receipt of ten thousand dollars, the same to be considered an advance of my share of the said Solon Beatty's estate. For, and in consideration of the said ten thousand dollars I hereby waive all claims to any further participation in the said estate, and agree that I will not, whether the said Solon Beatty dies testate or intestate, make any claim against the said estate, nor upon Mary Beatty, who, by this advance to me, becomes sole heir to the said estate.'"
Bob drew a long breath. Scattergood stared owlishly at Mary Beatty.
"Now, what d'you think of that, eh? Shouldn't be s'prised if that was the i-dentical paper that was weighin' on the mind of young Mr. Curtis. Shouldn't be a mite s'prised if 'twas."
"What is it, Mr. Baines?" asked Mary Beatty. "A will?"
"Wa-al, offhand I'd say it was consid'able better 'n a will. Ya-as.... Wills kin be busted, but this here docyment—I calc'late it would take mighty powerful hammerin' to knock it apart."
"And, Mary," said Bob, "if I were you I shouldn't mention the finding of it."
"Not to a soul," said Scattergood. "We'll take it mighty soft and spry and shet it up in Bob's safe.... Anybody know the combination to it besides you, Bob?"
"Nobody but you, Mr. Baines."
"Oh, me!... To be sure, me."
"And Miss Pound." "Um!... Sairy, eh? Course.... Sairy."
Within twenty-four hours everybody in Coldriver knew a paper of great significance had been discovered affecting the heirs to Solon Beatty's estate, and that the paper was locked in Bob Allen's safe. Bob had not talked; Scattergood certainly had been silent, and Mary Beatty solemnly averred that no word had passed her lips. Yet the fact was there for all to contemplate.... Farley Curtis devoted an entire day to the contemplation of it in his room at Grandmother Penny's.... That evening he invited Sarah Pound to drive with him. She found him a delightful and entertaining companion.
Sunday was still two days away when Bob looked up from his desk to say to Sarah: "This Beatty matter has kept us so busy there hasn't been any time for pleasure. You must be tired out, Miss Pound. Wouldn't you like to start early Sunday and drive over to White Pine for dinner—and come back after the sun goes down? It's a beautiful drive."
"I'm sorry," said Sarah, flushing with a feeling that was akin to guilt, "but I am engaged Sunday."
Bob turned again to his work, cast into sudden gloom, and wondering jealously what was Sarah's engagement. Sarah, not altogether easy in her mind, nor wholly pleased with herself, endeavored to justify herself for being so lightly off with the old and on with the new.... She compared Bob to Farley Curtis, and found the comparison not in Bob's favor. Not that this was exactly a justification, but it was a salve. Sarah was in the shopping period of her life—shopping for a husband, so to speak. She was entitled to the best she could get ... and Bob did not seem to be the best. Farley was sprightly, interesting, with the manners of a more effete world than Coldriver; Bob was awkward, ofttimes silent, lacking polish. Farley was solicitous in small matters that Bob failed utterly to perceive; Farley was always skilled in minute points of decorum, whose very existence was unknown to Bob. In short, Farley was altogether fascinating, while Bob, at best, was commonplace. Yet, not in her objective mind, but deep in her centers of intuition, she was conscious of a hesitancy, conscious of something that urged her toward Bob and warned her against Farley Curtis.
On Sunday Bob saw Sarah drive away with Curtis—and spent a black day of jealousy and heartburning. During the succeeding two weeks he spent many black days and sleepless nights, for Curtis monopolized Sarah's leisure, and Sarah seemed to have thrown discretion to the winds and clothed herself against fear of Coldriver's gossip, for she seemed to give her company almost eagerly to the stranger.... And Coldriver talked.
Bob spoke bitterly of the matter to Scattergood.
"Um!..." grunted Scattergood, "don't seem to recall any statute forbiddin' any young feller to git him any gal he kin. Eh?"
"No. But this Curtis—there's something wrong there. He isn't intending to play fair.... I—He's got some kind of a purpose, Mr. Baines."
"Think so, eh? What kind of a purpose?" Scattergood had his own ideas on this subject, but did not disclose them. It was in his mind that Curtis cultivated Sarah because of Sarah's propinquity of a certain paper which the man had reason to believe was in Bob Allen's safe.
Bob's face was set and stern, granite as the hills among which he had been born and which had become a part of his nature. "If he doesn't play fair ... if he should—hurt her ... I'd take him apart, Mr. Baines."
"Calc'late you would," said Scattergood, tranquilly, "but there's a law in sich case, made and pervided, callin' that kind of amusement murder ..."
It was not Scattergood's custom to publish his emotions; nevertheless he was worried. He appreciated the state of mind which had brought Sarah to Coldriver—the spirit of restless, resentful youth, demanding the world for its plaything. He knew Sarah's high temper, her eagerness for adventure.... He knew that thousands of girls before her had been fascinated by well-told tales of the life to be lived out in the world of cities, of wealth, of artificial gayeties ... the lure of travel, of excitement.... And Scattergood did not covet the duty of carrying a woeful story to old Nahum Pound, the gentle schoolmaster.
His uneasiness was not decreased by a bit of unpremeditated eavesdropping that fell in his way the next evening.... Farley Curtis was talking, Sarah Pound was listening—eagerly.
"You can't understand what living is," the man was saying, "How could you? You haven't lived. Here in this backwater you will never live.... You move around in a fog of monotony. Every day the same. But out there.... Everything! Everything you want and can imagine is there for the taking. A beautiful woman can take what she wants—that's what it's all for—for her to help herself to. Life and excitement and pleasure—and love ... they are all out there waiting."
"Did you ever try to imagine Paris, London, Madrid, Rome?" he went on. "You can't do it.... But you can see them. I—I would take you if you would let me ... if things fall out right. I'm poor ...but with this Beatty money I could take you anywhere. It would give us everything we want.... Half of that money belongs to me rightfully, doesn't it?"
"I suppose so."
"But I may not get it."
She was silent.
"There is a paper," he said, "and that paper may stand between you and me—and Paris and Rome and the world...." He paused, and then said, carelessly: "Won't you go with me, Sarah—away from this? Won't you let me take you, to love and to make happy?"
Presently she spoke, so low her voice was scarcely audible to Scattergood. "I don't know.... I don't know," she said.
Scattergood had heard enough. He stole away silently. The time had come to act, if he were going to act ... if no woeful story were to be carried to old Nahum Pound concerning his daughter. He might even be too late.... The lure of great cities and foreign shores might have done its work, and Farley Curtis's eloquence have served its purpose.
In the morning Bob Allen was early at his office. His first act was to open the safe to take out a packet of papers he had been laboring over the afternoon before.... The packet was not where he had placed it the night before. He remembered distinctly how he had shoved it into a certain pigeonhole.... It was not there. He found it in the compartment below.... Bob was not easily startled or frightened, so now he paused and took his memory to account. No.... The fault was not with his memory. He had done exactly as he remembered doing.... Somebody had opened that safe since he closed it; somebody had fingered its contents.... He caught his breath, not at the fear of loss, but in sudden terror of the means by which that loss had been brought about, the person who might have been the instrument.... Furiously he began going over the contents of the safe—money, securities, papers. Everything seemed intact. But one thing remained—the little drawer. He had put off opening that, because he dreaded to open it, for it contained the paper that excluded Farley Curtis from a share in his uncle's estate.... Bob compelled himself to turn the little key, to open the drawer.... It was empty!...
Bob walked slowly to his desk and sat down, his eyes fixed upon the safe as if it fascinated him.... Facts, facts! His soul demanded facts. Those at hand were few, simple. First, the safe had been opened by some one who knew the combination. Three persons existed who might have opened it—or betrayed its combination: Scattergood, himself, Sarah Pound.... Second, he knew he had not opened it nor betrayed the combination. Third, he was equally certain Scattergood had not done so.... Fourth—he groaned!...
Bob comprehended what had happened; why Farley Curtis had wooed so persistently Sarah Pound. It was not out of love nor desire, but for a more sordid purpose ... it was to win her love, to blind her to honor, to make a tool of her, and through her to secure possession of that bit of paper which stood between him and riches.
Presently Sarah Pound entered. Bob could not force himself to look at her; did not speak. She gazed at him curiously, and when she saw the grayness of his face, the lines about his mouth, and eyes that advanced his age by twenty years, she felt a little catch at her heart, a breathlessness, a sudden alarm.
"Miss Pound," he said, in a voice which he himself could not recognize as his own, "you needn't take off your hat.... You—you actually came back here! You were bold enough to come again to this office.... I fancied you would be gone—from Coldriver." His voice broke queerly. "I suppose you realize what you have done—and are satisfied with the price—the price of forfeiting the respect of every honest man and woman you know! That is a great deal to give up. It ought to command a high price—treachery.... I hope you are getting a sufficient return.... It means nothing to you, of course, but—I loved you. I thought about you as a man thinks about the woman he hopes will be his wife ... and his children's mother ... so it—pains—to find you despicable...."
Sarah's little fists clenched, her eyes glinted.
"How dare you?" she cried. "What affair is it of yours what I do?... You're a silly, jealous idiot." With which childish invective she flung out of the office.
In an hour Bob Allen was calmer, and so the more unhappy. His mind cleared, and, being cleared, it directed him to carry his trouble to Scattergood Baines.
"Um!... Gone, eh?" said Scattergood. "Sure it's gone?... Um!..."
"Yes, and Sarah Pound will be gone, too. How dared she come back to my office?... Now she'll go with Curtis."
"Shouldn't be s'prised," said Scattergood, waggling his head. "I heard Farley a-pointin' out to her the dee-sirability of Paris and Rome and sich European p'ints last night.... You calculate Sairy took the paper?"
"What else can I think?"
"To be sure.... Um!... Paris, Rome, London—might be argued into stealin' it myself, if I was a gal. Um!... Ever see a toad ketch flies, Bob? Does it with his tongue. There's toad men, Bob, that goes huntin' wimmin the same way—with their tongues. Su'prisin' the number and quality they ketch, too. What was you plannin' on doin', Bob? Goin' back to your office, wasn't you? And keepin' your mouth shet? Was that the idee? Eh?"
"I don't know what to do, Mr. Baines."
"Didn't figger on droppin' around to Grandma Penny's boardin' house about eight sharp, did you? Eight sharp.... And kind of settin' down quiet on the front porch? Jest settin'? Eh?... G'-by, Bob."
After Bob left the store Scattergood sat half an hour staring at the stove; then he left the store to its own devices and wandered up the street toward Grandmother Penny's. He encountered Sarah Pound as she came out through the gate.
"Howdy, Sairy?" he said, cheerfully. "Havin' consid'able amusement with life—eh?"
"I've been enjoying myself, Mr. Baines," Sarah said, making an effort at coldness and dignity.
"Bet you hain't enjoyin' yourself enough to warrant your doin' a favor for an old feller like me, eh?... This evenin', for instance?"
"I—I'm going away this evening."
"Um!... Goin' away, eh? Alone? Or along with somebody?"
"That's my own affair."
"To be sure.... To be sure, but the train don't leave till nine, does it? Couldn't manage to do me a favor at eight?"
"What is the favor, Mr. Baines?"
"'Tain't much. Sca'cely anythin' a-tall. I calc'late to be a-settin' in Grandma Penny's parlor at eight sharp. I won't keep you waitin' more 'n a second—unless somebody happens to be with me a-talkin' my arm off. If they hain't nobody with me, why, you walk right in. If they is somebody, why, you jest stand outside of the door a second, and they'll be gone. Then you come in. But don't come rompin' in if you hear voices. It's a mite of business, and 'twon't take but a second. Calc'late you kin manage that, eh?"
"Yes," she said, shortly.
At five minutes before eight Scattergood Baines rapped at Grandmother Penny's door and asked to speak to Farley Curtis, "Tell him it's somethin' p'tic'lar reegardin' the Beatty estate," he said, and stepped into the parlor. Farley appeared almost instantly; dapper, his usual courteous, self-possessed self. Scattergood began a peculiar and roundabout conversation after the manner of a man who fears to broach a subject plainly. Farley showed his irritation.
"Mr. Baines," he said, "suppose you get down to business. I'm going away this evening."
"To be sure.... To be sure. It's overlappin' eight now, hain't it?" Scattergood paused, listening. He fancied he heard some one approach and halt just outside the door. He was certain that a chair creaked on the porch outside the window.... He cleared his throat and drew a big yellow envelope from his pocket.
"Calculate I'm ready for business, if you be.... Which d'you calc'late is most desirable—havin' half a loaf, or no bread?"
"What do you mean?"
"You come to Coldriver on business, didn't you? Money business?"
"Why I came is my own affair."
"Certain.... Certain.... But things gets noised about. Things has got noised about concernin' a paper that stands betwixt you and half of the Beatty estate. Heard 'em myself." Scattergood waggled the envelope. "I hain't exactly objectin' to makin' a leetle quick money myself—supposin' it kin be done safe, and the blame, if they is any, throwed somewheres else.... Now, Mr. Curtis, what kind of a course would you foller if that paper we been talkin' about was to fall into the hands of a feller that felt like I do about makin' money?"
"What do you mean?" Farley demanded, moving forward eagerly in his chair.
"Hain't good at guessin', be you?"
"That paper doesn't worry me," said Farley. "Calc'lated on havin' it before you took the train to-night, eh?"
"Uh-huh!... Wa-al, I wasn't seein' sich a chance to make a dollar slip by. The way you was figgerin' on gittin' that paper, Mr. Curtis, won't work. I know. Uh-huh! I know, because I got ahead of you. I got that paper myself.... And we kin deal if I kin be made to feel safe.... Most things leaks out through wimmin.... Hain't mixin' any wimmin into this, be you?"
"Um!... How about Sairy Pound?"
Curtis shrugged his shoulders.
"Calc'latin' on takin' her away with you to-night?"
"Not now," said Farley.
"Seein's how you can't use her to git this paper for you, eh? That it?"
"Calc'lated on marryin' her, didn't you?"
"Fiddlesticks!" said Mr. Curtis, harshly.
"Understand me, I hain't takin' chances.... If this gal's mixed up in this, I don't deal."
"Do I look like a man who would let a silly, backwoods idiot of a girl stand between me and money? I'm through with her. She's no use to me now. You've said that yourself.... She's nothing to me."
"Good.... I got the paper right here, and I'm a-listenin' to your offer for it...."
"Ten thous—" began Farley, but a swift, furious thrusting open of the parlor door interrupted, as Sarah Pound flung herself into the room. For a moment she was speechless with rage.... Shame would come later.... "You contemptible—contemptible—contemptible—" she cried, breathlessly. "It was a thing like you I—I could choose!... I could throw away a man for you!... For a suit of clothes, and manners, and a lying tongue.... I could compare Bob Allen with you—and choose you!... Oh!..."
"Sairy," said Scattergood.
"But I never would have done it—not that. I'd never have taken that paper.... You know I wouldn't, Mr. Baines. Say you know that...."
"Wa-al," said Scattergood, dryly, "they hain't no tellin' how fur a woman'll go when she's bein' bamboozled by a scamp—so I kind of insured ag'in' your takin' it by takin' it myself.... Er—Mr. Curtis, if I was you, I'd sort of slip out soft by the back door. Bob Allen's a-waitin' for you on the front porch.... There's a train at nine."
Scattergood put a clumsy arm about Sarah, who, the moment her wrathful energy ebbed away, sobbed and sobbed and sobbed with shame and fear.
"Hey, out there," shouted Scattergood, "git a move on you!"
Bob Allen needed no urging. His arm was substituted for Scattergood's, his breast for Scattergood's—and Sarah made no complaint. "I wouldn't.... I wouldn't.... You thought I did," she murmured.
"I thought that," said Bob, brokenly. "How can you ever forgive me?... I—But I love you, Sarah. Won't that make up for it?"
"You—believed it," she repeated, and Scattergood grinned.
"Dummed if she hain't managed to put him in the wrong.... You can't beat wimmin.... She's put him in the wrong."
Scattergood peered at them a moment, saw what filled him with perfect satisfaction, and discreetly withdrew. He went out and sat on the porch and beamed up at the stars.... He sat there a long, long time, and nobody called him in. He got up, pressed his nose against the window, and rapped on the glass.
"Everybody forgiv' and fixed up," he called, "so's I kin git to bed with an easy mind?"
There was no answer. He had not been heard—but what he saw was answer sufficient for any man.