"No," said Adeline, eager to be comforted, "and I'm sure he's at the Mills. Elbridge has sent a dispatch to find out if he's there, but there must be something the matter with the telegraph. We hadn't heard before the funeral; or, at least, he didn't bring the word; and I hated to keep round after him when—"
"He probably hadn't heard," said the clergyman, soothingly, "and no news is good news, you know. But hadn't we better drive round by the station, and find out whether any answer has been—"
"O, no! I couldn't do that!" said Adeline, nervously. "They will telephone the answer up to Elbridge. But come home with me, if you haven't something to do, and stay with us till we—"
"Oh, very willingly." On the way the young clergyman talked of the accident, guessing that her hysterical conjectures had heightened the horror, and that he should make it less dreadful by exploring its facts with her. He did not declare it impossible her father should have been on the train, but he urged the extreme improbability.
Elbridge and his wife passed them, driving rapidly in Simpson's booby, which Adeline had ordered for their use at the funeral; and when she got into the house Elbridge was waiting there for her. He began at once; "Miss Northwick, I don't believe but what your father's staid over at Springfield for something. He was talkin' to me last week about some hosses there—"
"Isn't he at the Mills?" she demanded sharply.
Elbridge gave his hat a turn on his hand, before he looked up. "Well, no, he hain't been, yet—"
Adeline made no sound, but she sank down as a column of water sinks.
At the confusion of movements and voices that followed, Suzette came to the door of the library, and looked wonderingly into the hall, where this had happened, with a book clasped over her finger. "What in the world is the matter?" she asked with a sort of sarcastic amaze, at sight of Elbridge lifting something from the floor.
"Don't be alarmed, Miss Suzette," said Mr. Wade, "Your sister seems a little faint, and—"
"It's this sickening heat!" cried the girl, running to the door, and setting it wide. "It suffocates me when I come in from the outside. I'll get some water." She vanished and was back again instantly, stooping over Adeline to wet her forehead and temples. The rush of the cold air began to revive her. She opened her eyes, and Suzette said, severely, "What has come over you, Adeline? Aren't you well?" and as Adeline answered nothing, she went on: "I don't believe she knows where she is. Let us get her into the library on the lounge."
She put her strength with that of the young clergyman, and they carried Adeline to the lounge; Suzette dispatched Elbridge, hanging helplessly about, for some of the women. He sent the parlor-maid, and did not come back.
Adeline kept looking at her sister as if she were afraid of her. When she was recovered sufficiently to speak, she turned her eyes on the clergyman, and said huskily, "Tell her."
"Your sister has had a little fright," he began; and with his gentle eyes on the girl's he went on to deal the pain that priests and physicians must give. "There's the report of a railroad accident in the morning paper, and among the passengers—the missing—was one of the name of Northwick—"
"But father is at the Mills!"
"Your sister had telegraphed before the funeral, to make sure—and word has come that he—isn't there."
"Where is the paper?" demanded Suzette, with a kind of haughty incredulity.
Wade found it in his pocket, where he must have put it instead of giving it back to Adeline in the sleigh. Suzette took it and went with it to one of the windows. She stood reading the account of the accident, while her sister watched her with tremulous eagerness for the help that came from her contemptuous rejection of the calamity.
"How absurd! It isn't father's name, and he couldn't have been on the train. What in the world would he have been going to Montreal for, at this time of year? It's ridiculous!" Suzette flung the paper down, and came back to the other two.
"I felt," said Wade, "that it was extremely improbable—"
"But where," Adeline put in faintly, "could he have been if he wasn't at the Mills?"
"Anywhere in the world except Wellwater Junction," returned Suzette, scornfully. "He may have stopped over at Springfield, or—"
"Yes," Adeline admitted, "that's what Elbridge thought."
"Or he may have gone on to Willoughby Junction. He often goes there."
"That is true," said the other, suffering herself to take heart a little. "And he's been talking of selling his interest in the quarries there; and—"
"He's there, of course," said Suzette with finality. "If he'd been going farther, he'd have telegraphed us. He's always very careful. I'm not in the least alarmed, and I advise you not to be, Adeline. When did you see the paper first?"
"When I came down to breakfast," said Adeline, quietly.
"And I suppose you didn't eat any breakfast?"
Adeline's silence made confession.
"What I think is, we'd better all have lunch," said Suzette, and she went and touched the bell at the chimney. "You'll stay with us, won't you, Mr. Wade? We want lunch at once, James," she said to the man who answered her ring. "Of course, you must stay, Mr. Wade, and help see Adeline back to her right mind." She touched the bell again, and when the man appeared, "My sleigh at once, James," she commanded. "I will drive you home, Mr. Wade, on my way to the station. Of course I shall not leave anything in doubt about this silly scare. I fancy it will be no great difficulty to find out where father is. Where is that railroad guide? Probably my father took it up to his room." She ran upstairs and came down with the book in her hand. "Now we will see. I don't believe he could get any train at Springfield, where he would have to change for the Mills, that would take him beyond the Junction at that hour last night. The express has to come up from Boston—" She stopped and ran over the time-table of the route. "Well, he could get a connecting train at the Junction; but that doesn't prove at all that he did."
She talked on, mocking the mere suggestion of such a notion, and then suddenly rang the bell once more, to ask sharply, "Isn't lunch ready yet? Then bring us tea, here. I shall telegraph to the Mills again, and I shall telegraph to Mr. Hilary in Boston; he will know whether father was going anywhere else. They had a meeting of the Board day before yesterday, and father went to the Mills unexpectedly. I shall telegraph to Ponkwasset Junction, too; and you may be sure I shall not come home, Adeline, till I know something definite."
The tea came, and Suzette served the cups herself, with nerves that betrayed no tremor in the clash of silver or china. But she made haste, and at the sound of sleigh-bells without, she put down her own cup, untasted.
"Oh, must you take Mr. Wade away?" Adeline feebly pleaded. "Stay till she comes back!" she entreated.
Suzette faltered a moment, and then with a look at Mr. Wade, she gave a harsh laugh. "Very well!" she said.
She ran into the hall and up the stairs, and in another moment they heard her coming down again; the outer door shut after her, and then came the flutter of the sleigh-bells as she drove away.
Over the lunch the elder sister recovered herself a little, and ate as one can in the suspense of a strong emotion.
"Your sister is a person of great courage," said the clergyman, as if he were a little abashed by it.
"She would never show that she's troubled. But I know well enough that she's troubled, by the way she kept talking and doing something every minute; and now, if she hadn't gone to telegraph, she'd—I mustn't keep you here, any longer, Mr. Wade," she broke off in the sense of physical strength the food had given her. "Indeed, I mustn't. You needn't be anxious. I shall do very well, now. Yes! I shall!"
She begged him to leave her, but he perceived that she did not really wish him to go, and it was nearly an hour after Suzette drove away, before he got out of the house. He would not let her send him home; and he walked toward the village in the still, sunny cold of the early winter afternoon, thinking of the sort of contempt with which that girl had spurned the notion of calamity, as if it were something to be resented, and even snubbed, in its approach to her. It was as if she had now gone to trace it to its source, and defy it there; to stamp upon the presumptuous rumor and destroy it.
Just before he reached the crest of the upland that shut out the village from him, he heard the clash of sleigh-bells; a pair of horses leaped into sight, and came bearing down upon him with that fine throw of their feet, which you get only in such a direct encounter. He stepped into the side track, and then he heard Miss Sue Northwick call to her horses and saw her pulling them up. She had her father's fondness for horses, and the pair of little grays were a gift from him with the picturesque sledge they drew. The dasher swelled forward like a swan's breast, and then curved deeply backward; from either corner of the band of iron filagree at the top, dangled a red horsetail. The man who had driven her to the station sat in a rumble behind; on the seat with Suzette was another young lady, who put out her hand to Wade with a look of uncommon liking, across the shining bearskin robe, and laughed at his astonishment in seeing her. While they talked, the clipped grays nervously lifted and set down their forefeet in the snow, as if fingering it; they inhaled the cold air with squared nostrils, and blew it out in blasts of white steam. Suzette said, in, explanation of her friend's presence: "Louise had seen the account, and she made her brother bring her up. They think just as I do, that there's nothing of it; one of the papers had the name Nordeck; but we've left Mr. Hilary at the station, fighting the telegraph and telephone in all directions, and he isn't to stop till he gets something positive. He's trying Wellwater now." She said all this very haughtily, but she added, "The only thing is, I can't understand why my father hasn't been heard of at the Mills. Some one was asking for him there yesterday."
"Probably he went on to Willoughby Junction, as you suggested."
"Of course he did," said Louise. "We haven't heard from there yet."
"Oh, I'm not in the least troubled," said Sue, "but it's certainly very provoking." She lifted her reins. "I'm hurrying home to let Adeline know."
"She'll be very glad," Wade returned, as if it were the certainty of good news she was carrying. "I think I'll join Matt at the station," he suggested to Louise.
"Do!" she answered. "You can certainly manage something between you. Matt will be almost as glad of your coming as my going. I thought we were coming up here to reassure Sue, but I seem strangely superfluous."
"You can reassure Adeline," said Sue. She added to Wade, "I keep thinking what an annoyance it will be to my father, to have all this fuss made over him. I sometimes feel vexed with Adeline. Good-bye!" she called back to him as she drove away, and she stopped again to add, "Won't you come up with Mr. Hilary when you've heard something definite?"
Wade promised, and they repeated their good-byes all round with a resolute cheerfulness.
The affair had been mixed up with tea and lunch, and there was now the suggestion of a gay return to the Northwick place and an hour or two more in that pleasant company of pretty and lively women, which Wade loved almost as well as he loved righteousness. He knew that there was such a thing as death in the world; he had often already seen its strange, peaceful face; he had just stood by an open grave; but at the moment, his youth denied it all, and he swung along over the hard-packed roadway thinking of the superb beauty of Suzette Northwick, and the witchery of Louise Hilary's face. It was like her, to come at once to her friend in this anxiety; and he believed a strength in her to help bear the worst, the worst that now seemed so remote and impossible.
He did not find Matt Hilary in the station; but he pushed through to the platform outside and saw him at a little distance standing between two of the tracks, and watching a group of men there who were replacing some wornout rails with new ones.
"Matt!" he called to him, and Matt turned about and said, "Hello, Caryl!" and yielded him a sort of absent-minded hand, while he kept his face turned smilingly upon the men. Some were holding the rails in position, and another was driving in the spike that was to rivet the plate to the sleeper. He struck it with exquisite accuracy from a wide, free-handed rhythmical swing of his hammer.
"Beautiful! Isn't it?" said Matt. "I never see any sort of manual labor, even the kinds that are brutified and demoralized by their association with machinery, without thinking how far the arts still come short of the trades. If any sculptor could feel it, what a magnificent bas-relief just that thing would make!" He turned round to look at the men again: in their different poses of self-forgetfulness and interest in their work, they had a beauty and grace, in spite of their clumsy dress, which ennobled the scene.
When Matt once more faced round, he smiled serenely on his friend. Wade, who knew his temperament and his philosophy, was deceived for the moment. "Then you don't share Miss Northwick's anxiety about her father," he began, as if Matt had been dealing directly with that matter, and had been giving his reasons for not being troubled about it. "Have you heard any thing yet? But of course you haven't, or—"
Matt halted him, and looked down into his face from his greater height with a sort of sobered cheerfulness. "How much do you know about Miss Northwick's father?"
"Very little—nothing in fact but what she and her sister showed me in the morning paper. I know they're in great distress about him; I just met Miss Suzette and your sister, and they told me I should find you at the station."
Matt began to walk on again. "I didn't know but you had heard some talk from the outside. I came off to escape the pressure of inquiry at the station; people had found out somehow that I had been put in charge of the telegraphing when the young ladies left. I imagined they wouldn't follow me if I went for a walk." He put his hand through Wade's arm, and directed their course across the tracks toward the street away from the station, where Elbridge had walked his horses up and down the evening he met Northwick. "I told them to look out for me, if they got anything; I should keep in sight somewhere. Isn't it a curious commentary on our state of things," he went on, "that when any man in a position of trust can't be accounted for twenty-four hours after he leaves home, the business-like supposition is that he has run away with money that doesn't belong to him?"
"What do you mean, Matt?"
"I mean that the popular belief in Hatboro' seems to be that Northwick was on his way to Canada on the train that was wrecked."
"Shocking, shocking!" said Wade. "What makes you think they believe that?"
"The conjecture and speculation began in the station the moment Miss Northwick left it, and before it could be generally understood that I was there to represent her. I suppose there wasn't a man among them that wouldn't have trusted Northwick with all he had, or wouldn't have felt that his fortune was made if Northwick had taken charge of his money. In fact I heard some of them saying so before their deference for me shut their mouths. Yet I haven't a doubt they all think he's an absconding defaulter."
"It's shocking," said Wade, sadly, "but I'm afraid you're right. These things are so common that people are subjected to suspicion on no kind of—" But just at this juncture Matt lifted his head from the moment's revery in which he seemed to have been far absent.
"Have you seen much of the family this winter?"
"Yes, a good deal," said Wade. "They're not communicants, but they've been regular attendants at the services, and I've been a good deal at their house. They seem rather lonely; they have very little to do with the South Hatboro' people, and nothing at all with the villagers. I don't know why they've spent the winter here. Of course one hears all kinds of gossip. The gossips at South Hatboro' say that Miss Suzette was willing to be on with young Wilmington again, and that she kept the family here. But I place no faith in such a conjecture."
"It has a rustic crudity," said Matt. "But if Jack Wilmington ever cared anything for the girl, now's his chance to be a man and stand by her."
Something in Matt's tone made Wade stop and ask, "What do you mean, Matt? Is there anything besides—"
"Yes." Matt took a fresh grip of his friend's arm, and walked him steadily forward, and kept him walking in spite of his involuntary tendency to come to a halt every few steps, and try to urge something that he never quite got from his tongue, against the probability of what Matt was saying. "I mean that these people are right in their suspicions."
"My dear Caryl, there is no doubt whatever that Northwick is a defaulter to the company in a very large amount. It came out at a meeting of the directors on Monday. He confessed it, for he could not deny it in the face of the proof against him, and he was given a number of days to make up his shortage. He was released on parole: it was really the best thing, the wisest as well as the mercifullest, and of course he broke his word, and seized the first chance to run away. I knew all about the defalcation from my father just after the meeting. There is simply no question about it."
"Gracious powers!" said Wade, finally helpless to dispute the facts which he still did not realize. "And you think it possible—do you suppose—imagine—that it was really he who was in that burning car? What an awful fate!"
"An awful fate?" asked Matt. "Do you think so? Yes, yours is the safe ground in regard to a thing of that kind—the only ground."
"The only ground?"
"I was thinking of my poor father," said Matt.
"He said some sharp things to that wretched creature at the meeting of the Board—called him a thief, and I dare say other hard names—and told him that the best thing that could happen to him was a railroad accident on his way home."
"You see? When he read the account of that accident in the paper this morning, and found a name so much like Northwick's among the victims, he was fearfully broken up, of course. He felt somehow as if he had caused his death—I could see that, though of course he wouldn't admit anything of the kind."
"Of course," said Wade, compassionately.
"I suppose it isn't well to invoke death in any way. He is like the devil, and only too apt to come, if you ask for him. I don't mean anything superstitious, and I don't suppose my father really has any superstitious feeling about the matter. But he's been rather a friend—or a victim—of that damnable theory that the gentlemanly way out of a difficulty like Northwick's is suicide, and I suppose he spoke from association with it, or by an impulse from it. He has been telegraphing right and left, to try to verify the reports, as it was his business and duty to do, anyway; and he caught at the notion of my coming up here with Louise to see if we could be of any use to those two poor women."
"Poor women!" Wade echoed. "The worst must fall upon them, as the worst always seems to do."
"Yes, wherever a cruel blow falls there seems to be a woman for it to fall on. And you see what a refinement of cruelty this is going to be when it reaches them? They have got to know that their father met that awful death, and that he met it because he was a defaulter and was running away. I suppose the papers will be full of it."
"That seems intolerable. Couldn't anything be done to stop them?"
"Why the thing has to come out. You can keep happiness a secret, but sorrow and shame have to come out—I don't know why, but they do. Then, when they come out, we feel as if the means of their publicity were the cause of them. It's very unphilosophical." They walked slowly along in silence for a few moments, and then Matt's revery broke out again in words: "Well, it's to be seen now whether she has the strength that bears, or the strength that breaks. The way she held her head, as she took the reins and drove off, with poor Louise beside her palpitating with sympathy for her trouble and anxiety about her horses, was, yes, it was superb: there's no other word for it. Ah, poor girl!"
"Your sister's presence will be a great help to her," said Wade. "It was very good of her to come."
"Ah, there wasn't anything else for it," said Matt, flinging his head up. "Louise has my father's loyalty. I don't know much about her friendship with Miss Northwick—she's so much younger than I, and they came together when I was abroad—but I've fancied she wasn't much liked among the girls, and Louise was her champion, in a way. When Louise read that report, nothing would do but she must come."
"But our being here must have its embarrassments for my father. It was a sacrifice for him to let us come."
"I don't understand."
"It was he who carried through the respite the directors gave Northwick; and now he will have the appearance before some people of helping to cover up the miserable facts, of putting a good face on things while a rogue was getting away from justice. He might even be supposed to have some interest in getting him out of the way."
"Oh, I don't think any such suspicion can attach itself to such a man as Mr. Hilary," said Wade, with a certain resentment of the suggestion even from the man's son.
"In a commercial civilization like ours any sort of suspicion can attach to any sort of man in a case like this," said Matt.
Wade took off his hat and wiped his forehead. "I can't realize that the case is what you say. I can't realize it at all. It seems like some poor sort of play, of make-believe. I can't forgive myself for being so little moved by it. We are in the presence of a horror that ought to make us uncover our heads and fall to our knees and confess our own sins to God!"
"Ah, I'm with you there!" said Matt, and he pushed his hand farther through his friend's arm.
They were both still well under thirty, and they both had that zest for mere experience, any experience, that hunger for the knowledge of life, which youth feels. In their several ways they were already men who had thought for themselves, or conjectured, rather; and they were eager to verify their speculations through their emotions. They thought a good deal alike in many things, though they started from such opposite points in their thinking; and they both had finally the same ideal of life. Their intimacy was of as old a date as their school days; at Harvard they were in the same clubs as well as the same class. Wade's father was not a Boston man, but his mother was a Bellingham, and he was nurtured in the traditions of Hilary's social life. Both had broken with them: Wade not so much when he became a ritualist as Hilary when he turned his back on manufacturing.
They were now not without a kind of pride in standing so close to the calamity they were fated witnesses of, and in the midst of their sympathy they had a curiosity which concerned itself with one of the victims because she was a young and beautiful girl. Their pity not so much forgot as ignored Northwick's elder daughter, who was a plain, sick old maid, and followed the younger with a kind of shrinking and dread of her doom which Matt tried to put into words.
"I assure you if I couldn't manage to pull away from it at moments, I don't see how I could stand it. I had a sense of personal disgrace, when I met that poor girl, with what I had in my mind. I felt as if I were taking some base advantage of her in knowing that about her father, and I was so glad when she went off with Louise and left me to struggle with my infamous information alone. I hurried Louise away with her in the most cowardly haste. We don't any of us realize it, as you say. Why, just imagine! It means sorrow, it means shame, it means poverty. They will have to leave their house, their home; she will have to give up everything to the company. It isn't merely friends and her place in the world; it's money, it's something to eat and wear, it's a roof over her head!"
Wade refused the extreme view portrayed by his friend's figures. "Of course she won't be allowed to come to want."
"Of course. But there's really no measuring the sinuous reach of a disaster like this. It strikes from a coil that seems to involve everything."
"What are you going to do if you get bad news?" asked Wade.
"Ah, I don't know! I must tell her, somehow; unless you think that you—" Wade gave a start which Matt interpreted aright; he laughed nervously. "No, no! It's for me to do it. I know that; unless I can get Louise. Ah! I wonder what that is."
They were walking back toward the station again, and Matt had seen a head and arm projected from the office window, and a hand waving a sheet of yellow paper. It seemed meant for them. They both began to run, and then they checked themselves; and walked as fast as they could.
"We must refer the matter to your sister," said Wade, "and if she thinks best, remember that I shall be quite ready to speak to Miss Northwick. Or, if you think best, I will speak to her without troubling your sister."
"Oh, you're all right, Wade. You needn't have any doubt of that. We'll see. I wonder what there is in that dispatch."
The old station master had come out of the station and was hurrying to meet them with the message, now duly enclosed in an envelope. He gave it to Matt and promptly turned his back on him.
Matt tore it open, and read: "Impossible to identify parlor-car passengers." The telegram was signed "Operator," and was dated at Wellwater. It fell blankly on their tense feeling.
"Well," said Wade, after a long breath. "It isn't the worst."
Matt read it frowningly over several times; then he smiled. "Oh, no. This isn't at all bad. It's nothing. But so far, it's rather comforting. And it's something, even if it is nothing. Well, I suppose I'd better go up to Miss Northwick with it. Wait a moment; I must tell them where to send if anything else comes."
"I'll walk with you as far as St. Michael's," said Wade, when they left the station. "I'm going to my study, there."
They set off together, up the middle of the street, which gave them more elbow-room than the sidewalk narrowly blocked out of the snow.
From a large store as they were passing, a small, dry-looking, pompous little man advanced to the middle of the street, and stopped them. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Wade! I beg your pardon, sir!" he said, nimbly transferring himself, after the quasi self-introduction, from Wade to Matt. "May I ask whether you have received any further information?"
"No," said Matt, amiably, "the only answer we have got is that it is impossible to identify the passengers in the parlor-car."
"Ah, thank you! Thank you very much, sir! I felt sure it couldn't be our Mr. Northwick. Er—good-morning, sir."
He bowed himself away, and went into his store again, and Matt asked Wade, "Who in the world is that?"
"He's a Mr. Gerrish—keeps the large store, there. Rather an unpleasant type."
Matt smiled. "He had the effect of refusing to believe that anything so low as an accident could happen to a man of Northwick's business standing."
"Something of that," Wade assented. "He worships Northwick on the altar of material success."
Matt lifted his head and looked about. "I suppose the whole place is simply seething with curiosity."
Just after they reached the side-street where Wade left him to go down to his church, he met Sue Northwick driving in her sleigh. She was alone, except for the groom impassive in the rumble.
"Have you heard anything?" she asked, sharply.
Matt repeated the dispatch from the operator at Wellwater.
"I knew it was a mistake," she said, with a kind of resolute scorn. "It's perfectly ridiculous! Why should he have been there? I think there ought to be some way of punishing the newspapers for circulating false reports. I've been talking with the man who drove my father to the train yesterday morning, and he says he spoke lately of buying some horses at Springfield. He got several from a farm near there once. I'm going down to telegraph the farmer; I found his name among father's bills. Of course he's there. I've got the dispatch all written out."
"Let me take it back to the station for you, Miss Northwick," said Matt.
"No; get in with me here, and we'll drive down, and then I'll carry you back home. Or! Here, Dennis!" she said to the man in the rumble; and she handed him the telegram. "Take this to the telegraph-office, and tell them to send it up by Simpson the instant the answer comes."
The Irishman said, "Yes, ma'am," and dropped from his perch with the paper in his hand.
"Get in, Mr. Hilary," she said, and after he had mounted she skilfully backed the sleigh and turned the horses homeward. "If I hear nothing from my dispatch, or if I hear wrong, I am going up to Wellwater Junction myself, by the first train. I can't wait any longer. If it's the worst, I want to know the worst."
Matt did not know what to say to her courage. So he said, "Alone?" to gain time.
"Of course! At such a time, I would rather be alone."
At the house Matt found Louise had gone to her room for a moment, and he said he would like to speak with her there.
She was lying on the lounge, when he announced himself, and she said, "Come in," and explained, "I just came off a moment, to give my sympathies a little rest. And then, being up late so many nights this week. What have you heard?"
"Nothing, practically. Louise, how long did you expect to stay?"
"I don't know. I hadn't thought. As long as I'm needed, I suppose. Why? Must you go back?"
"Not exactly? What are you driving at?"
"Why, there's nothing to be found out by telegraphing. Some one must go up to the place where the accident happened. She sees that, and she wants to go. She can't realize at all what it means to go there. Suppose she could manage the journey, going alone, and all that; what could she do after she got there? How could she go and look up the place of the accident, and satisfy herself whether her father was—"
"Matt!" shrieked his sister. "If you go on, you will drive me wild. She mustn't go; that's all there is of it. You mustn't think of letting her go." She sat up on the lounge in expression of her resolution on this point. "She must send somebody—some of their men. She mustn't go. It's too hideous!"
"No," said Matt, thoughtfully. "I shall go."
"Why not? I can be at the place by four or five in the morning, and I can ascertain all the facts, and be able to relieve this terrible suspense for her."
"For both of them," suggested Louise. "It must be quite as bad for that poor, sick old maid."
"Why, of course," said Matt, and he felt so much ashamed of having left her out of the account that he added, "I dare say it's even worse for her. She's seen enough of life to realize it more."
"Sue was his favorite, though," Louise returned. "Of course you must go, Matt. You couldn't do less! It's magnificent of you. Have you told her, yet, that you would go?"
"Not yet. I thought I would talk it over with you, first."
"Oh, I approve of it. It's the only thing to do. And I had better stay here till you come back—"
"Why, no; I'm not sure." He came a little nearer and dropped his voice. "You'd better know the whole trouble, Louise. There's great trouble for them whether he's dead or alive. There's something wrong in his accounts with the company, and if he was on that train he was running away to Canada to escape arrest."
He could see that only partial intelligence of the case reached her.
"Then if he's killed, it will all be hushed up. I see! It makes you hope he's killed."
Matt gave a despairing groan. "If he's killed it makes it just so much the worse. The defalcation has to come out, any way."
"When must it come out?"
"A good many people know of it; and such things are hard to keep. It may come out—some rumor of it—in the morning papers. The question is whether you want to stay till they know it here; whether it would be wise, or useful."
"Certainly not! I should want to kill anybody that was by when such a thing as that came out, and I should despise Sue Northwick if she let me get away alive. I must go at once!"
She slid herself from the lounge, and ran to the glass, where she put up a coil of hair in the knot it had escaped from.
"I had my doubts," Matt said, "about letting you come here, without telling you just what the matter was; but mother thought you would insist upon coming, any way, and that you would be embarrassed."
"Oh, that was quite right," said Louise. "The great thing now is to get away."
"I hope you won't let her suspect—"
"Well, I think you can trust me for that, Matt," said Louise, turning round upon him, with a hairpin in her mouth, long enough to give him as sarcastic a glance as she could. If her present self-possession was a warrant of future performance, Matt thought he could trust her; but he was afraid Louise had not taken in the whole enormity of the fact; and he was right in this. As a crime, she did not then, or ever afterwards, fully imagine it. It may be doubted whether she conceived of it as other than a great trouble, and as something that ought always to be kept from her friend.
Matt went down stairs and found Sue Northwick in the library.
"I feel perfectly sure," she said, "that we shall hear of my father at Springfield. One of the horses he got there has gone lame, and it would be quite like him to stop and look up another in the place of it on the same farm."
The logic of this theory did not strike Matt, but the girl held her head in such a strong way, she drew her short breaths with such a smoothness, she so visibly concealed her anxiety in the resolution to believe herself what she said that he could not refuse it the tribute of an apparent credence. "Yes, that certainly makes it seem probable."
"At any rate," she said, "if I hear nothing from him there, or we get no news from Wellwater, I shall go there at once. I've made up my mind to that."
"I shouldn't wish you to go alone, Sue," Adeline quavered. Her eyes were red, and her lips swollen as if she had been crying; and now the tears came with her words. "You could never get there alone in the world. Don't you remember, it took us all day to get to Wellwater the last time we went to Quebec?"
Sue gave her sister a severe look, as if to quell her open fears at least, and Matt asked aimlessly, "Is it on the way to Quebec?"
Sue picked up the railroad guide from the desk where she had left it. "Yes; it is, and it isn't." She opened the book and showed him the map of the road. "The train divides at Wellwater, and part goes to Montreal and part to Quebec. There are all sorts of stops and starts on the Quebec branch, so that you don't arrive till next morning, but you get to Montreal in five or six hours. But the whole thing seems perfectly frantic. I don't see why we pay the slightest attention to it! Of course, papa has stayed over in Springfield for something; only he's usually so careful about telegraphing us if he changes his plans—"
She faltered, and let the book drop. Matt picked it up for her, and began to look at the time-table, at first to hide the pain he felt at the self-discouragement in which she ended, and then to see if he might not somehow be useful to her. "I see that a train from Boston meets the Springfield train at Wellwater."
"Does there?" She bent to look over the book with him, and he felt the ungovernable thrill at being near the beauty of a woman's face which a man never knows whether to be ashamed of or glad of, but which he cannot help feeling. "Then perhaps I had better go by way of Boston. What time does it start? Oh, I see! Seven, thirty. I could get that train—if I don't hear from him at Springfield. But I know I shall hear."
A stir of drapery made them aware of Louise at the library door. Suzette went toward her, "Are you going?" she asked, without apparently sharing the surprise Matt felt at seeing his sister with her hat and gloves on, and her jacket over her arm.
"Yes, I'm going, Sue. I just ran up to see you—I had to do that—but we both know I'm of no use here; and so we won't make any pretences." Louise spoke very steadily, almost coldly; her brother did not quite know what to make of her; she was pale, and she looked down, while she spoke. But when she finished buttoning the glove she was engaged with, she went up and put both her hands in Suzette's. "I don't need to tell you that I'm going just to get myself out of your way. It isn't a time for ornamental friend-shipping, and you've got all the good you could out of seeing me, and knowing that I'm anxious with you. That's about all there is of it, and I guess we'd better not spin it out. But remember, Sue, whenever you need me, when you really want me, you can send for me, and if I don't come again till you do, you'll know that I'm simply waiting. Will you remember that—whatever happens?"
Matt gave a long tacit sigh of relief.
"Yes, I will, Louise," said Suzette. They kissed each other as if in formal ratification of their compact, which meant so much more to one of them than it could to the other.
"Come, Matt!" said Louise.
She added hastily, to prevent insistence against her plan, that they would have time to walk to the station, and she wished to walk. Then Matt said, "I will see you aboard the train, and then I'll come back and wait till you hear from Springfield, Miss Suzette."
"That is a good idea," said Louise.
"But," Adeline urged tremulously, "sha'n't you be afraid to go to Boston alone? It'll be dark by the time you get there!"
"The journey can't be very dangerous," said Louise, "and when I arrive, I shall put myself in charge of a faithful Boston hackman, and tell him I'm very valuable, and am to be taken the best of care of. Then I shall be set down at our door in perfect safety."
They all had the relief of a little laugh; even Adeline joined reluctantly in it.
When they were once free of the house, Matt said, "I wonder whether she will remember, after the worst comes, what you said, and whether she will trust you enough to turn to us?"
"I don't know. Probably she will be too proud at first. But I shall come, whether she asks me or not. If they had relations or connections, as everybody else has, it would be different. But as it is—"
"Yes, of course," said Matt.
"I wish I could realize that Sue is fond of him, as we are of papa. But I can't. He always made me feel creepy; didn't he you?"
"He was a secret person. But as far as I had anything to do with him at the Mills, when I was there, I found him square enough. He was a country person."
"I suppose Sue's pride is countrified," said Louise.
Matt went on, "His secrecy may have been only a sort of shyness; Heaven knows I don't want to judge him. I suppose that that slow deliberation of his was an effort to maintain himself with dignity. Of course, we see him now in the light of his rascality, poor man, and most of his traits seem ugly."
They had a little time after they reached the station, and they walked up and down the platform, talking, and Matt explained how his father might be glad to have him go to Wellwater and settle the question whether Northwick was in the accident or not. It would be a great relief for him to know. He tried to make out that he was going from a divided motive.
"Oh, you needn't be at the trouble to say all that to me, Matt," said Louise. "I don't blame you for wanting to go, even out of kindness."
"No, I suppose there's no guilt attaching to a thing of that kind," Matt answered.
There were a good many loungers about the station, young men and girls, released from the shops for the day; in such towns they find the station an agreeable resort, and enjoy a never-failing excitement in the coming and going of the trains. They watched the Hilarys, as they walked, with envy of that something distinguished which both of them had. They were both tall and handsomely made, and they had the ease before their fellow-beings which perhaps comes as much from the life-long habit of good clothes as from anything else. Matt had a conscience against whatever would separate him from his kind, but he could not help carrying himself like a swell, for all that; and Louise did not try to help it, for her part. She was an avowed worldling, and in this quality she now wore a drab cloth costume, bordered with black fur down the front of the jacket and around it at the hips; the skirt, which fell plain to her feet, had a border of fur there, and it swirled and swayed with her long, dashing stride in a way that filled all those poor girls who saw it, with despair. It seemed to interest almost as painfully a young man with a thin, delicate face, whom she noticed looking at her; she took him at first for one of those educated or half-educated operatives, who are complicating the labor problem more and more. He was no better dressed than others in the crowd, and there was no reason why he should not be a hat-shop or a shoe-shop hand, and yet, at a second glance, she decided that he was not. He stood staring at her with a studious frown, and with the faint suggestion of a sneer on his clean-shaven, fine lips; but she knew that he was admiring her, however he might be hating her, and she spoke to Matt about him as they turned from him in their walk and promised to point him out. But when they came up again to where he had been standing, he was gone. The train came in, and Louise got aboard, and Matt made his way into the station, and went to ask the operator in the telegraph office if she had got anything for Miss Northwick.
She said, "Something just come. I was waiting for the hack to send it up."
"Oh, I will take it, if you please. I am going back to Mr. Northwick's," said Matt.
Matt took the dispatch, and hurried out to find some means of getting quickly to Miss Northwick with it. There was no conveyance about the station, and he started up the street at a gait which was little short of a run, and which exposed him to the ridicule of such small boys as observed his haste, in their intervals of punging. One, who dropped from the runner of a sleigh which came up behind him, jeered him for the awkwardness with which he floundered out of its way in the deep snow of the roadside. The sleigh was abruptly halted, and Sue Northwick called from it, "Mr. Hilary! I couldn't wait at home; and I've just been at the depot by the lower road. You have a dispatch?"
"Yes, I have a telegram."
"Oh, give it to me!"
He withheld it a moment. "I don't know what it is, Miss Northwick. But if isn't what you expected, will you let—will you allow me—"
As if she did not know what she was doing, she caught the dispatch from his hand, and tore it open. "Well," she said, "I knew it. He hasn't been there; now I shall go to Wellwater." She crumpled the telegram nervously in her hand, and made a motion to lift the reins.
Matt put his hand on her wrist. "You couldn't. You—you must let me go."
"Me. I can get into Boston in time for that half-past-seven train, and I can do all the things when I get to Wellwater that you couldn't do. Come; be reasonable! You must see that what I propose is best. I solemnly promise you that nothing shall be left undone, or omitted or forgotten, that could set your mind at rest. Whatever you would wish done, I will do. Go home; your sister needs you; you need yourself; if you have a trial to meet greater than this suspense, which you've borne with such courage, you want all your strength for it. I beg you to trust me to do this for you. I know that it seems recreant to let another go in your place on such an errand, but it really isn't so. You ought to know that I wouldn't offer to go if I were not sure that I could do all that you could do, and more. Come! Let me go for you!"
He poured out his reasons vehemently, and she sat like one without strength to answer. When he stopped, she still waited before she answered simply, almost dryly, "Well," and she gave no other sign of assent in words. But she turned over the hand, on which he was keeping his, and clutched his hand hard; the tears, the first she had shed that day, gushed into her eyes. She lifted the reins and drove away, and he stood in the road gazing after her, till her sleigh vanished over the rise of ground to the southward.
The pale light in which Matt Hilary watched the sleigh out of sight thickened into early winter dusk before his train came and he got off to Boston. In the meantime the electrics came out like sudden moons, and shed a lunar ray over the region round about the station, where a young man, who was in the habit of describing himself in print as "one of The Boston Events' young men," found his way into an eating-house not far from the track. It had a simple, domestic effect inside, and the young man gave a sigh of comfort in the pleasant warmth and light. There was a woman there who had a very conversable air, a sort of eventual sociability, as the young man realized when she looked up from twitching the white, clean cloths perfectly straight on the little tables set in rows on either side of the room.
She finally reached the table where the young man had taken a chair for his overcoat and hat, and was about taking another for himself.
"Well," he said, "let's see. No use asking if you've got coffee?" He inhaled the odor of it coming from the open door of another room, with a deep breath.
"Well, I don't think there's anything much better than baked beans. Do you?"
"Well, not when you git 'em good," the woman admitted. "Ril good."
"And what's the matter with a piece of mince pie?"
"I don't see's there's any great deal. Hot?"
"I thought so," said the woman. "We have it both ways, but I'd as soon eat a piece of I don't know what as a piece o' cold mince pie."
"We have mince pie right along at our house," said the young man. "But I guess if I was to eat a piece of it cold, my wife would have the doctor round inside of five minutes."
The woman laughed as if for joy in the hot mince-pie fellowship established between herself and the young man. "Well, I guess she need to. Nothin' else you want?" She brought the beans and coffee, with a hot plate, and a Japanese paper napkin, and she said, as she arranged them on the table before the young man, "Your pie's warmin' for you; I got you some rolls; they're just right out the oven; and here's some the best butter I ever put a knife to, if I do say so. It's just as good and sweet as butter can be, if it didn't come from the Northwick place at a dollar a pound."
"Well, now, I should have thought you'd have used the Northwick butter," said the young man with friendly irony.
"You know the Northwick butter?" said the woman, charmed at the discovery of another tie.
"Well, my wife likes it for cooking," said the young man. "We have a fancy brand for the table."
The woman laughed out her delight in his pleasantry. "Land! I'll bet you grumble at it, too!" she said, with a precipitate advance in intimacy which he did not disallow.
"Well, I'm pretty particular," said the young man. "But I have to be, to find anything to find fault with in the way my wife manages. I don't suppose I shall be able to get much more Northwick butter, now."
"Why, if he was killed in that accident—"
"Oh, I guess there ain't anything to that," said the woman. "I guess it was some other Northwick. Their coachman—Elbridge Newton—was tellin' my husband that Mr. Northwick had stopped over at Springfield to look at some hosses there. He's always buyin' more hosses. I guess he must have as much as eighty or ninety hosses now. I don't place any dependence on that report."
"That so?" said the young man. "Why, what did that fellow mean, over at the drug store, just now, by his getting out for Canada?"
"Little slim chap, with a big black moustache, and blue eyes, blue and blazing, as you may say."
"Oh,—Mr. Putney! That's just one of his jokes. He's always down on Mr. Northwick."
"Then I suppose he's just gone up to Ponkwasset about the trouble there."
"I guess so."
The woman called toward an open door at the end of the room, "William!" and a man in his shirt sleeves showed himself. "You heard of any labor trouble to Mr. Northwick's mills?"
"No, I don't believe there is any," said the man. He came forward inquiringly to the table where his wife was standing by the Events' young man.
"Well, I'm sorry," said the young man, "but it shows that I haven't lost so much in missing Mr. Northwick, after all. I came up here from Boston to interview him for our paper about the labor troubles."
"I want to know!" said the hostess. "You an editor?"
"Well, I'm a reporter—same thing," the young man answered. "Perhaps you've got some troubles of your own here in your shops?"
"No," said the host, "I guess everybody's pretty well satisfied here in Hatboro'." He was tempted to talk by the air of confidence which the Events' young man somehow diffused about him, but his native Yankee caution prevailed, and he did not take the lead offered him.
"Well," said the young man, "I noticed one of your citizens over at the drug store that seemed to be pretty happy."
"Oh, yes; Mr. Putney. I heard you tellin' my wife."
"Who is Mr. Putney, any way?" asked the Events' man.
"Mr. Putney?" the host repeated, with a glance at his wife, as if for instruction or correction in case he should go wrong. "He's one of the old Hatboro' Putneys, here."
"All of 'em preserved in liquor, the same way?"
"Well, no, I can't say as they are." The host laughed, but not with much liking, apparently. His wife did not laugh at all, and the young man perceived that he had struck a false note.
"Pity," he said, "to see a man like that, goin' that way. He said more bright things in five minutes, drunk as he was, than I could say in a month on a strict prohibition basis."
The good understanding was restored by this ready self-abasement. "Well, I d' know as you can say that, exactly," said the hostess, "but he is bright, there ain't any two ways about it. And he ain't always that way you see him. It's just one of his times, now. He has 'em about once in every four or five months, and the rest part he's just as straight as anybody. It's like a disease, as I tell my husband."
"I guess if he was a mind to steady up, there ain't any lawyer could go ahead of him, well, not in this town," said the husband.
"Seems to be pretty popular as it is," said the young man. "What makes him so down on Mr. Northwick?"
"Well, I dunno," said the host, "what it is. He's always been so. I presume it's more the kind of a man Mr. Northwick is, than what it is anything else."
"Why, what kind of a man is Mr. Northwick, any way?" the young man asked, beginning to give his attention to the pie, which the woman had now brought. "He don't seem to be so popular. What's the reason."
"Well, I don't know as I could say, exactly. I presume, one thing, he's only been here summers till this year, since his wife died, and he never did have much to do with the place, before."
"What's he living here for this winter? Economizing?"
"No; I guess he no need to do that," the host answered.
His wife looked knowing, and said with a laugh, "I guess Miss Sue Northwick could tell you if she was a mind to."
"Oh, I see," said the reporter, with an irreverence that seemed to be merely provisional and held subject to instant exchange for any more available attitude. "Young man in the case. Friendless minister whose slippers require constant attention?"
"I guess he ain't very friendless," said the hostess, "as far forth as that goes. He's about the most popular minister, especially with the workin' folks, since Mr. Peck."
"Who was Mr. Peck?"
"Well, he was the one that was run over by the cars at the depot here two or three years back. Why, this house was started on his idea. Sort of co-operation at first; we run it for the Social Union."
"And the co-operation petered out," said the reporter making a note. "Always does; and then you took it, and began to make money. Standard history of co-operation."
"I guess we ain't gettin' rich any too fast," said the hostess, dryly.
"Well, you will if you use the Northwick butter. What's the reason he isn't popular here when he is here? Must spend a good deal of money on that big place of his; and give work."
"Mr. Putney says it's corruptin' to have such a rich man in the neighborhood; and he does more harm than good with his money." The hostess threw out the notion as if it were something she had never been quite able to accept herself, and would like to see its effect upon a man of the reporter's wide observation. "He thinks Hatboro' was better off before there was a single hat-shop or shoe-shop in the place."
"And the law offices had it all to themselves," said the young man; and he laughed. "Well, it was a halcyon period. What sort of a man is Mr. Northwick, personally?"
The woman referred the question to her husband, who pondered it a moment. "Well, he's a kind of a close-mouthed man. He's never had anything to do with the Hatboro' folks much. But I never heard anything against him. I guess he's a pretty good man."
"Wouldn't be likely to mention it round a great deal if he was going to Canada. Heigh? Well, I'm sorry I can't see Mr. Northwick, after all. With these strikes in the mills everywhere, he must have some light to throw on the labor question generally. Poor boy, himself, I believe?"
"I don't believe his daughters could remember when," said the hostess, sarcastically.
"That's so? Well, we are apt to lose our memory for dates as we get on in the world, especially the ladies. Ponkwasset isn't on the direct line of this road, is it?" He asked this of the host, as if it followed.
"No, you got to change at Springfield, and take the Union and Dominion road there. Then it's on a branch."
"Well, I guess I shall have to run up and see Mr. Northwick, there. What did you say the young man's name was that's keeping the Northwick family here this winter?" He turned suddenly to the hostess, putting up his note-book, and throwing a silver dollar on the table to be changed. "Married man myself, you know."
"I guess I hain't mentioned any names," said the woman in high glee. Her husband went back to the kitchen, and she took the dollar away to a desk in the corner of the room, and brought back the change.
"Who'd be a good person to talk with about the labor situation here?" the young man asked, in pocketing his money.
"I d' know as I could hardly tell," said the hostess thoughtfully. "There's Colonel Marvin, he's got the largest shoe-shop; and some the hat-shop folks, most any of 'em would do. And then there's Mr. Wilmington that owns the stocking mills; him or Mr. Jack Wilmington, either one'd be good. Mr. Jack'd be the best, I guess. Or I don't suppose there's anybuddy in the place 'd know more, if they'd a mind to talk, than Mrs. Wilmington; unless it was Mis' Docter Morrell."
"Is Mr. Jack their son?" asked the reporter.
"Land! Why she ain't a day older, if she's that. He's their nephew."
"Oh, I see: second wife. Then he's the young man, heigh!"
The hostess looked at the reporter with admiration. "Well, you do beat the witch. If he hain't, I guess he might 'a' b'en."
The reporter said he guessed he would take another piece of that pie, and some more coffee if she had it, and before he had finished them he had been allowed to understand that if it was not for his being Mrs. Wilmington's nephew Mr. Jack would have been Miss Northwick's husband long ago; and that the love lost between the two ladies was not worth crying for.
The reporter, who had fallen into his present calling by a series of accidents not necessarily of final result in it, did not use arts so much as instincts in its exercise. He liked to talk of himself and his own surroundings, and he found that few men, and no women could resist the lure thrown out by his sincere expansiveness. He now commended himself to the hostess by the philosophical view he took of the popular belief that Mrs. Wilmington was keeping her nephew from marrying any one else so as to marry him herself when her husband died. He said that if you were an old man and you married a young woman he guessed that was what you had got to expect. This gave him occasion to enlarge upon the happiness to be found only in the married state if you were fitly mated, and on his own exceptional good fortune in it.
He was in the full flow of an animated confidence relating to the flat he had just taken and furnished in Boston, when the door opened, and the pale young man whom Louise Hilary had noticed at the station, came in.
The reporter broke off with a laugh of greeting. "Hello, Maxwell! You onto it, too?"
"Onto what?" said the other, with none of the reporter's effusion.
"This labor-trouble business," said the reporter, with a wink for him alone.
"Pshaw, Pinney! You'd grow a bush for the pleasure of beating about it." Maxwell hung his hat on a hook above the table, but sat down fronting Pinney with his overcoat on; it was a well-worn overcoat, irredeemably shabby at the buttonholes. "I'd like some tea," he said to the hostess, "some English breakfast tea, if you have it; and a little toast." He rested his elbows on the table, and took his head between his hands, and pressed his fingers against his temples.
"Headache?" asked Pinney, with the jocose sympathy men show one another's sufferings, as if they could be joked away. "Better take something substantial. Nothing like ham and eggs for a headache."
The other unfolded his paper napkin. "Have you got anything worth while?"
"Lots of public opinion and local color," said Pinney. "Have you?"
"I've been half crazy with this headache. I suppose we brought most of the news with us," he suggested.
"Well, I don't know about that," said Pinney.
"I do. You got your tip straight from headquarters. I know all about it, Pinney, so you might as well save time, on that point, if time's an object with you. They don't seem to know anything here; but the consensus in Hatboro' is that he was running away."
"The what is?" asked Pinney.
"Anything like the United States Census?"
"It isn't spelt like it."
Pinney made a note of it. "I'll get a head-line out of that. I take my own wherever I find it, as George Washington said."
"Your own, you thief!" said Maxwell, with sardonic amusement. "You don't know what the word means."
"I can make a pretty good guess, thank you," said Pinney, putting up his book.
"Do you want to trade?" Maxwell asked, after his tea came, and he had revived himself with a sip or two.
"Any scoops?" asked Pinney, warily. "Anything exclusive?"
"Oh, come!" said Maxwell. "No, I haven't; and neither have you. What do you make mysteries for? I've been over the whole ground, and so have you. There are no scoops in it."
"I think there's a scoop if you want to work it," said Pinney, darkly.
Maxwell received the vaunt with a sneer. "You ought to be a detective—in a novel." He buttered his toast and ate a little of it, like a man of small appetite and invalid digestion.
"I suppose you've interviewed the family?" suggested Pinney.
"No," said Maxwell, gloomily, "there are some things that even a space-man can't do."
"You ought to go back on a salary," said Pinney, with compassion and superiority. "You'll ruin yourself trying to fill space, if you stick at trifles."
"Such as going and asking a man's family whether they think he was burnt up in a railroad accident, and trying to make copy out of their emotions? Thank you, I prefer ruin. If that's your scoop, you're welcome to it."
"They're not obliged to see you," urged Pinney. "You send in your name and—"
"They shut the door in your face, if they have the presence of mind."
"Well! What do you care if they do? It's all in the way of business, anyhow. It's not a personal thing."
"A snub's a pretty personal thing, Pinney. The reporter doesn't mind it, but it makes the man's face burn."
"Oh, very well! If you're going to let uncleanly scruples like that stand in your way, you'd better retire to the poet's corner, and stay there. You can fill that much space, any way; but you are not built for a reporter. When are you going to Boston?"
"Six, fifteen. I've got a scoop of my own."
"What is it?" asked Pinney, incredulously.
"Come round in the morning, and I'll tell you."
"Perhaps I'll go in with you, after all. I'll just step out into the cold air, and see if I can harden my cheek for that interview. Your diffidence is infectious, Maxwell."
Pinney was really somewhat dashed by Maxwell's attitude, both because it appealed to the more delicate and generous self, which he was obliged to pocket so often in the course of business, and because it made him suspect that Maxwell had already interviewed Northwick's family. They would be forewarned, in that case, and would, of course, refuse to see him. But he felt that as a space-man, with the privilege of filling all the space he chose with this defalcation, his duty to his family required him to use every means for making copy.
He encouraged himself by thinking of his wife, and what she was probably doing at that moment in their flat in Boston, and he was feeling fairly well when he asked for Miss Northwick at the door of the great wooden palace. He had time to take in its characteristics, before James, the inside-man, opened the door and scanned him for a moment with a sort of baffled intelligence. To the experience of the inside-man his appearance gave no proof that he was or was not an agent, a peddler in disguise, or a genteel mendicant of the sort he was used to detecting and deterring.
"I don't know, sir, I'll go and see." He let rather than invited Pinney in, and in his absence, the representative of the Events made note of the interior, both of the hall which he had been allowed to enter, and of the library, where he found himself upon his own responsibility. The inside-man discovered him there with his back to the fire, when he returned with his card still in his hand.
"Miss Northwick thinks it's her father you wish to see. He's not at home."
"Yes, I knew that. I did wish to see Mr. Northwick, and I asked to see Miss Northwick because I knew he wasn't at home."
"Oh!" The man disappeared, and after another interval Adeline came in. She showed the trepidation she felt at finding herself in the presence of an interviewer.
"Will you sit down?" she said, timidly, and she glanced at the card which she had brought back this time. It bore the name of Lorenzo A. Pinney, and in the left hand corner the words Representing the Boston Events. Mr. Pinney made haste to reassure her by a very respectful and business-like straightforwardness of manner; he did not forbid it a certain shade of authority.
"I am sorry to disturb you, Miss Northwick. I hoped to have some conversation with you in regard to this—this rumor—accident. Can you tell me just when Mr. Northwick left home?"
"He went up to the Mills, yesterday morning, quite early," said Adeline. She was in the rise of hope which she and Suzette both felt from the mere fact that Matt Hilary was on the way to hunt the horrible rumor to its source; it seemed to her that he must extinguish it there. She wanted to tell this friendly-looking reporter so; but she would not do this without Suzette's authority. Suzette had been scolding her for not telling her what was in the paper as soon as she read it in the morning; and they were both so far respited for the moment from their fear, as to have had some words back and forth about the propriety of seeing this reporter at all. Adeline was on her most prudent behavior.
"Did you expect him back soon when he left?" Pinney asked respectfully.
"Oh, no; he said he wouldn't be back for some days."
"It's several hours to Ponkwasset, I believe?" suggested Pinney.
"Yes, three or four. There is one train, at half-past-twelve, I think," said Miss Northwick, with a glance at the clock, "that takes you there in three hours."
"The early train doesn't connect right through, then?"
"No; my father would have to wait over at Springfield. He doesn't often take the early train; and so we thought, when we found he wasn't at the Mills, that he had stopped over a day at Springfield to buy some horses from a farmer there. But we've just heard that he didn't. He may have run down to New York; he often has business there. We don't place any reliance on that story"—she gasped the rest out—"about—that accident."
"Of course not," said Pinney with real sympathy. "It's just one of those flying rumors—they get the names all mixed up, those country operators."
"They spelled the name two ways in different papers," said Adeline. "Father had no earthly business up that way; and he always telegraphs."
"I believe the Mills are on the line of the Union and Dominion Road, are they not?" Pinney fell into the formal style of his printed questionings.
"Yes, they are. Father could get the Northern express at Springfield, and drive over from Ponkwasset Junction; the express doesn't stop at the Falls."
"I see. Well, I won't trouble you any farther, Miss Northwick. I hope you'll find out it's all a mistake about—"
"Oh, I know it is!" said Adeline. "A gentleman—a friend of ours—has just gone up to Wellwater to see about it."
"Oh, well, that's good," said Pinney. "Then you'll soon have good news. I suppose you've telegraphed?"
"We couldn't get anything by telegraph. That is the reason he went."
It seemed to Pinney that she wished to tell him who went; but she did not tell him; and after waiting for a moment in vain, he rose and said, "Well, I must be getting back to Boston. I should have been up here to see your father about these labor troubles night before last, if I'd taken my wife's advice. I always miss it when I don't," he said, smiling.
There is no reason why a man should acquire merit with other women by seeming subject to his wife or dependent upon her; but he does. They take it as a sort of tribute to themselves, or to the abstract woman; their respect for that man rises; they begin to honor him; their hearts warm to him. Pinney's devotion to his wife had already been of great use to him, on several occasions, in creating an atmosphere of trust about him. He really could not keep her out of his talk for more than five minutes at a time; all topics led up to her sooner or later.
When he now rose to go, Miss Northwick said, "I'm sorry my father isn't at home, and I'm sorry I can't give you any information about the troubles."
"Oh, I shall go to the Mills, to-morrow," he interrupted cheerily. Her relenting emboldened him to say, "You must have a beautiful place, here, in summer, Miss Northwick."
"I like it all times of the year," she answered. "We've all been enjoying the winter so much; it's the first we've spent here for a long time." She felt a strange pleasure in saying this; her reference to their family life seemed to reassure her of its unbroken continuity, and to warrant her father's safety.
"Yes," said Pinney, "I knew you had let your house in town. I think my wife would feel about it just as you do; she's a great person for the country, and if it wasn't for my work on the paper, I guess I sh'd have to live there."
Miss Northwick took a mass of heavy-headed jacqueminot roses from the vase where they drooped above the mantel, and wrapping them in a paper from the desk, stiffly offered them to Pinney. "Won't you carry these to your wife?" she said. This was not only a recognition of Pinney's worth in being so fond of his wife, but a vague attempt at propitiation. She thought it might somehow soften the heart of the interviewer in him, and keep him from putting anything in the paper about her. She was afraid to ask him not to do so.
"Oh, thank you," said Pinney. "I didn't mean to—it's very kind of you—I assure you." He felt very queer to be remanded to the purely human basis in relation to these people, and he made haste to get away from that interview. He had nothing to blame himself for, and yet he now suddenly somehow felt to blame. In the light of the defaulter's home life, Northwick appeared his victim. Pinney was not going to punish him, he was merely going to publish him: but all the same, for that moment, it seemed to him that he was Northwick's persecutor, and was hunting him down, running him to earth. He wished that poor old girl had not given him those flowers; he did not feel that he could take them to his wife; on the way back to the station he stepped aside from the road and dropped them into the deep snow.
His wife met him at the door of their flat, eager to know what success he had; and at sight of her his spirits rose again, and he gave her an enthusiastic synopsis of what he had done.
She flung herself on his knees, where he sat, and embraced him. "Ren, you've done splendidly! And I know you'll beat the Abstract clear out of sight. Oh, Ren, Ren!" She threw her arms round his neck again, and the happy tears started to her eyes. "This will give you any place on the paper you choose to ask for! Oh, I'm the happiest girl in the world."
Pinney gave her a joyful hug. "Yes, it's all right. There are ninety-nine chances to one that he was going to Canada. There's a big default, running up into the hundred thousands, and they gave him a chance to make up his shortage—it's the old story. I've got just the setting I wanted for my facts, and now, as soon as Manton gives us the word to go ahead—"
"Wait till Manton gives the word!" cried Mrs. Pinney. "Well, you shall do no such thing, Ren. We won't wait a minute."
Pinney broke out into a laugh, and gave her another hug for her enthusiasm, and explained, between laughing at her and kissing her, why he had to wait; that if he used the matter before the detective authorized him, it would be the last tip he would ever get from Manton. "We shan't lose anything. I'm going to commence writing it out, now. I'm going to make it a work of art. Now, you go and get me some coffee, Hat. There isn't going to be any let up on this till it's all blocked out, any way; and I'm going to leave mighty few places to fill in, I can tell you." He pulled off his coat, and sat down at his desk.
His wife stopped him. "You'd better come out into the kitchen, and work on the table there. It's bigger than this desk."
"Don't know but I had," said Pinney. He gathered up his work and followed her out into the cosy little kitchen, where she cooked their simple meals, and they ate them. "Been living on tea since I been gone?" He pulled open the refrigerator built into the wall, and glanced into it. "Last night's dinner all there yet!"
"You know I don't care to eat when you're away, Ren," she said, with a pathetic little mouth.
Pinney kissed her and then he sat down to his work again; and when he was tired with writing, his wife took the pen and wrote from his dictation. As they wrought on, they lost the sense, if they ever had it, of a fellow creature inside of the figure of a spectacular defaulter which grew from their hands; and they enjoyed the impersonality which enables us to judge and sentence one another in this world, and to do justice, as we say. It is true that Pinney, having seen Northwick's home, and faced his elderly, invalid daughter, was moved to use him with a leniency which he would not otherwise have felt. He recognized a merit in this forbearance of his, and once, towards the end of his work, when he was taking a little rest, he said: "Reporters get as much abuse as plumbers; but if people only knew what we kept back, perhaps they would sing a different tune. Of course, it's a temptation to describe his daughter, poor old thing, and give the interview in full, but I don't quite like to. I've got to cut it down to the fact that she evidently hadn't the least idea of the defalcation, or why he was on the way to Canada. Might work a little pathos in with that, but I guess I mustn't!"
His wife pushed the manuscript away from her, and flung down the pen. "Well, Ren, if you go on talking in that way, you'll take the pleasure out of it for me; I can tell you that much. If I get to thinking of his family, I can't help you any more."
"Pshaw!" said Pinney. "The facts have got to come out, any way, and I guess they won't be handled half as mercifully anywhere else as I shall handle 'em." He put his arms round her, and pulled her tight up to him. "Your tender-heartedness is going to be the ruin of me yet, Hat. If it hadn't been for thinking how you'd have felt, I should gone right up to Wellwater, and looked up that accident, myself, on the ground. But I knew you'd go all to pieces, if I wasn't back at the time I said, and so I didn't go."
"Oh, what a story!" said the young wife, fondly, with her adoring eyes upon him. "I shouldn't have cared, I guess, if you'd never come back."
"Shouldn't you? How many per cent of that am I going to believe?" he asked, and he drew her to him again in a rapture with her pretty looks, and the love he saw in them.
Pinney was a handsome little fellow himself, with a gay give-and-take air that had always served him well with women, and that, as his wife often told him, had made her determine to have him the first time she saw him.
This was at the opening of the Promontory House, two summers before, when Pinney was assigned to write the affair up for the Events. She had got her first place as operator in the new hotel; and he brought in a despatch for her to send to Boston just as she was going to shut up the office for the night, and go in to see the dancing in the main dining-room, and perhaps be asked to dance herself by some of the clerks.
At the sound of a pencil tapping on the ledge of the little window in the cast-iron filagree wall of her den, she turned quickly round ready to cry with disappointment; but at sight of Pinney with his blue eyes, and his brown fringe of moustache curling closely in over his lip, under his short, straight nose, and a funny cleft in his chin, she felt more like laughing, somehow, as she had since told him a hundred times. He wrote back to her from Boston, on some pretended business; and they began to correspond, as they called it; and they were engaged before the summer was over. They had never yet tired of talking about that first meeting, or of talking about themselves and each other in any aspect. They found out, as soon as they were engaged, and that sort of social splendor which young people wear to each other's eyes had passed, that they were both rather simple and harmless folks, and they began to value each other as being good. This tendency only grew upon them with the greater intimacy of marriage. The chief reason for thinking that they were good was that they loved each other so much; she knew that he was good because he loved her; and he believed that he must have a great deal of good in him, if such a girl loved him so much. They thought it a virtue to exist solely for one another as they did; their mutual devotion seemed to them a form of unselfishness. They felt it a great merit to be frugal and industrious that they might prosper; they prospered solely to their own advantage, but the advantage of persons so deserving through their frugality and industry seemed a kind of altruism; it kept them in constant good humor with themselves, and content with each other. They had risked a great deal in getting married on Pinney's small salary, but apparently their courage had been rewarded, and they were not finally without the sense that their happiness had been achieved somehow in the public interest.
Maxwell's headache went off after his cup of tea, but when he reached the house in Clover Street, where he had a room in the boarding-house his mother kept, he was so tired that he wanted to go to bed. He told her he was not tired; only disappointed with his afternoon's work.
"I didn't get very much. Why, of course, there was a lot of stuff lying round in the gutters that I can work up, if I have the stomach for it. You'll see it in Pinney's report, whether I do it or not. Pinney thinks it's all valuable material. I left him there interviewing the defaulter's family, and making material out of their misery. I couldn't do that."
"I shouldn't want you to, Brice," said his mother. "I couldn't bear to have you."
"Well, we're wrong, both of us, from one point of view," said the young fellow. "As Pinney says, it's business to do these things, and a business motive ought to purify and ennoble any performance. Pinney is getting to be a first-class reporter; he'll be a managing editor and an owner, and be refusing my work in less than ten years."
"I hope you'll be out of such work long before that," said the mother.
"I'm likely to be out of all kinds of work before that, if I keep on at this gait. Pinney hasn't got the slightest literary instinct: he's a wood-chopper, a stable-boy by nature; but he knows how to make copy, and he's sure to get on."
"Well, you don't want to get on in his way," the mother urged soothingly.
"Yes; but I've got to get on in his way while I'm trying to get on in my own. I've got to work eight hours at reporting for the privilege of working two at literature. That's how the world is built. The first thing is to earn your bread."
"Well, you do earn yours, my son—and no one works harder to earn it."
"Ah, but it's so damned dirty when I've earned it."
"Oh, my son!"
"Well, I won't swear at it. That's stupid, too; as stupid as all the rest." He rose from the chair he had dropped into, and went toward the door of the next room. "I must beautify my person with a clean collar and cuffs. I'm going down to make a call on the Back Bay, and I wish to leave a good impression with the fellow that shows me the door when he finds out who I am and what I want. I'm going to interview Mr. Hilary on the company's feelings towards their absconding treasurer. What a dose! He'll never know I hate it ten times as bad as he does. But it's my only chance for a scoop."
"I'm sure he'll receive you well, Brice. He must see that you're a gentleman."
"No, I'm not a gentleman, mother," the son interrupted harshly from the room where he was modifying his linen. "I'm not in that line of business. But I'm like most people in most other lines of business: I intend to be a gentleman as soon as I can afford it. I shall have to pocket myself as usual, when I interview Mr. Hilary. Perhaps he isn't a gentleman, either. There's some consolation in that. I should like to write an article some day on business methods and their compatibility with self-respect. But Mr. Ricker wouldn't print it."
"He's very kind to you, Brice."
"Yes, he's as kind as he dares to be. He's the oasis in the desert of my life; but the counting-room simoom comes along and dries him up, every now and then. Suppose I began my article by a study of the counting-room in independent journalism?"
Mrs. Maxwell had nothing to say to this suggestion, but much concerning the necessity of wearing the neck-muffler, which she found her son had not had on all day. She put it on for him now, and made him promise to put it on for himself when he left the house where he was going to call.
The man who came to the door told him that Mr. Hilary was not at home, but was expected shortly, and consented to let him come in and wait. He tried to classify Maxwell in deciding where to let him wait; his coat and hat looked like a chair in the hall; his pale, refined, rather haughty face, like the drawing-room. The man compromised on the library, and led him in there.
Louise rose upright on the lounge, where she had thrown herself, after dinner, to rest, in the dim light, and think over the day's strange experience, and stared at him helplessly. For her greater ease and comfort, she had pushed off her shoes, and they had gone over the foot of the lounge. She found herself confronted with the contumacious-looking workman she had noticed at the station in Hatboro', with those thin, mocking lips, and the large, dreamy eyes that she remembered.
The serving-man said, "Oh, I didn't know you were here, Miss," and stood irresolute. "The gentleman wishes to see your father."
"Will you sit down?" she said to Maxwell. "My father will be in very soon, I think." She began to wonder whether she could edge along unobserved to where her shoes lay, and slip her feet into them. But for the present she remained where she was, and not merely because her shoes were off and she could not well get away, but because it was not in her nature not to wish every one to be happy and comfortable. She was as far as any woman can be from coquetry, but she could not see any manner of man without trying to please him. "I'm sorry he's isn't here," she said, and then, as there seemed nothing for him to answer, she ventured, "It's very cold out, isn't it?"
"It's grown colder since nightfall," said Maxwell.
He remembered her and she saw that he did, and this somehow promoted an illogical sense of acquaintance with him.
"It seems," she ventured farther, "very unusual weather for the beginning of February."
"Why, I don't know," said Maxwell, with rather more self-possession than she wished him to have, so soon. "I think we're apt to have very cold weather after the January thaw."
"That's true," said Louise, with inward wonder that she had not thought of it. His self-possession did not comport with his threadbare clothes any more than his neat accent and quiet tone comported with the proletarian character she had assigned him. She decided that he must be a walking-delegate, and that he had probably come on mischief from some of the workpeople in her father's employ; she had never seen a walking-delegate before, but she had heard much dispute between her father and brother as to his usefulness in society; and her decision gave Maxwell fresh interest in her mind. Before he knew who Louise was, he had made her represent the millionnaire's purse-pride, because he found her in Hilary's house, and because he had hated her for a swell, as much as a young man can hate a pretty woman, when he saw her walking up and down the platform at Hatboro'. He looked about the rich man's library with a scornful recognition of its luxury. His disdain, which was purely dramatic, and had no personal direction, began to scare Louise; she wanted to go away, but even if she could get to her shoes without his noticing, she could not get them on without making a scraping noise on the hard-wood floor. She did not know what to say next, and her heart warmed with gratitude to Maxwell when he said, with no great relevancy to what they had been saying, but with much to what he had in mind, "I don't think one realizes the winter, except in the country."
"Yes," she said, "one forgets how lovely it is out of town."
"And how dreary," he added.
"Oh, do you feel that?" she asked, and she said to herself, "We shall be debating whether summer is pleasanter than winter, if we keep on at this rate."
"Yes, I think so," said Maxwell. He looked at a picture over the mantel, to put himself at greater ease, and began to speak of it, of the color and drawing. She saw that he knew nothing of art, and felt only the literary quality of the picture, and she was trying compassionately to get the talk away from it, when she heard her father's step in the hall below.
Hilary gave a start of question, when he looked into the library, that brought Maxwell to his feet. "Mr. Hilary, I'm connected with the Daily Abstract, and I've come to see if you are willing to talk with me about this rumored accident to Mr. Northwick."
"No, sir! No, sir!" Hilary stormed back. "I don't know any more about the accident, than you do! I haven't a word to say about it. Not a word! Not a syllable! I hope that's enough?"