I shook my head.
"I understand your position, Mr. Colton," I said, "but I can't say yes. Not now, at any rate."
"Why not? Isn't five hundred enough?"
"It's a good offer."
"Then why not accept it?"
"Because, if I were certain that I wanted to sell, I could not accept any offer just now."
"Why not? See here! are you afraid the town will be sore because the road is closed?"
"It would be a great inconvenience to them."
"It's a greater one to me as it is. Can you afford to be a philanthropist? Are you one of those public-spirited citizens we read about?"
He was sneering now, and my anger, which had lessened somewhat when he spoke of his wife's ill health, was rising again.
"Are you?" he repeated.
"I don't know as to that. But, as I said a while ago, Mr. Colton, I couldn't sell that land to you now."
"Because, if there were no other reason, I promised not to sell it without telling another person first."
He threw down his cigar and stood up. I rose also.
"I see," he said, with sarcasm. "I knew there was something beside public spirit. You think, by hanging off and playing me against this other sucker, you can get a higher price. Well, if that's the game, I'll keep him busy."
He took out his watch, glanced at it, and thrust it back into his pocket.
"I've wasted time enough over this fool thing," he declared. "Now that I know what the game is we'll talk to the point. It's highway robbery, but I might have expected to be robbed. I'll give you six hundred for that land."
I did not answer. I was holding my temper by main strength and I could not trust myself to speak.
"Well?" he sneered. "That shakes your public spirit some, hey? What do you say?"
"No," I answered, and started for the door.
"What!" he could hardly believe his ears. "By the Lord Harry! the fellow is crazy. Six hundred and fifty then, you infernal robber."
"NO! Say, what in thunder do you mean?"
"I mean that you may go to the devil," I retorted, and reached for the door knob.
But before my fingers touched it there was the sound of laughter and voices in the hall. The knob was turned from without. I stepped back and to one side involuntarily, as the door opened and into the library came, not the butler, but a young lady, a girl in an automobile coat and bonnet. And, following her, a young man.
"Father," said the young lady, "Johnson says you've bought that horrid road. I'm so glad! When did you do it?"
"Congratulations, Mr. Colton," said the young man. "We just passed a cart full of something—seaweed, I believe it was—as we came along with the car. Oscar had to slow down to squeeze by, and we certainly were swept by ocean breezes. By Jove! I can smell them yet. I—"
The young lady interrupted him.
"Hush, Victor," she said. "I beg your pardon, Father. I thought you were alone. Victor, we're intruding."
The open door had partially screened me from the newcomers. But Colton, red and wrathful, had not ceased to glare in my direction and she, following his gaze, saw me. She did not recognize me, I think—probably I had not made sufficient impression upon her mind even for casual remembrance—but I recognized her. She was the girl with the dark eyes, whose look of contemptuous indifference had so withered my self-esteem. And her companion was the young chap who, from the tonneau of the automobile that morning, had inquired the way to Bayport.
The young man turned lazily. "Are we?" he said. "I—What! Why, Mabel, it's the humorist!"
Then she recognized me. I could feel the blood climbing from my toes to the roots of my hair. I was too astonished and chagrined to speak or even move, though I wanted to move very much indeed. She looked at me and I at her. Then she turned coldly away.
"Come, Victor," she said.
But Victor was his own blase self. It took more than a trifle to shake his calm. He laughed.
"It's the humorist," he repeated. "Reuben, how are you?"
Colton regarded the three of us with amazement.
"What?" he began. "Mabel, do you—"
But I had recovered my powers of locomotion. I was on my way out of that library.
"Here!" shouted Colton. "Stop!"
I did not stop. Feeling as I did at that moment it would have been distinctly unpleasant for the person who tried to stop me. The girl was in my way and, as I approached, she drew her skirts aside. No doubt it was my imagination which made her manner of doing it seem like an insult, but, imagination or reality, it was the one thing necessary to clench my resolution. Now when she looked at me I returned the look with interest. I strode through the doorway and across the hall. The butler would have opened the outer door for me, but I opened it myself to the imminent danger of his dignified nose. As I stepped from the portico I heard behind me a roar from Big Jim Colton and a shout of laughter from Victor.
I walked home at top speed. Only once did I look back. That was just as I was about to enter the grove on the other side of the Shore Lane. Then I turned and saw, at the big window at the end of the "Newport villa," a group of three staring in my direction: Colton, his daughter and that cub Victor. The distance was too great to see the expression of their faces, but I knew that two of them, at least, were laughing—laughing at me.
I did not laugh.
Lute was waiting for me by the gate and ran to meet me. He was wild with excitement.
"He came after you, didn't he?" he cried, grabbing at my coat sleeve. "You went over to his house with him, didn't you! I see you and at fust I couldn't scurcely believe it. What did he want? What did he say?"
I did not answer. He ran along beside me, still clinging to my sleeve.
"What did he want?" he repeated. "What did he say to you? What did you say to him? Tell a feller, can't you?"
"I told him to go to the devil," I answered, savagely.
Lute let go of my sleeve.
"You—you—By time, you're stark loony!" he gasped; and collapsed against the gate post.
I went into the house, up the back stairs to my room, and shut the door.
So she was his daughter. I might have guessed it; would have guessed it if I had possessed the commonest of common-sense. I might have known that the auto was Colton's. No other machine was likely to be traveling on the Lower Road at that season of the year. She was the pretty daughter of whom Dorinda had spoken to Mother. Well, she was pretty enough; even I had to admit that. But I admitted it grudgingly. I hated her for her beauty and fine clothes and haughty arrogance. She was the incarnation of snobbishness.
But to be made twice ridiculous even by the incarnation of snobbishness was galling. She was to be my next-door neighbor; we were likely to meet almost anywhere at any time. When I thought of this and of the two meetings which had already taken place I swore at the blue and white water-pitcher on my bureau because it did not contain water enough to drown me. Not that I would commit suicide on her account. She would not care if I did and certainly I did not care whether she would care or not; but if I were satisfactorily dead I probably should not remember what a fool I had made of myself, or Fate had made of me.
Why had I not got out of that library before she came? Oh, if not, why hadn't I stayed and told her father, in her hearing, and with dignity, just what I thought of him and his remarks to me? But no; I had run away. She—or that Victor—would tell of the meeting at the bridge, and all my independence and the rest of it would be regarded as of a piece with that, just the big-headed "smartness" of a country boor. In their eyes I was a nuisance, that was all. A disagreeable one, perhaps, like the Shore Lane, but a nuisance, one to laugh at and forget—if it could not be gotten rid of.
Why had I gone with Colton at all? Why hadn't I remained at the boathouse and there told the King of New York to go to the mischief? or words to that effect. But I had, at all events, told him that. In spite of my chagrin I could not help chuckling as I thought of it. To tell Big Jim Colton to go to the devil was, in its way, I imagined, a privilege enjoyed by few. It must have shaken his self-satisfaction a trifle. Well, after all, what did I care? He, and his whole family—including Victor—had my permission to migrate in that direction and I wished Old Nick joy of their company.
Having derived this much satisfaction from my reflections, I went downstairs. Dorinda was setting the table for supper. She looked at me as I came in.
"Been visitin', I hear," she observed, wiping an imaginary speck from the corner of a plate with her "afternoon" apron.
"Yes," said I.
"Um-hm," said Dorinda. "Have a good time?"
I smiled. "I had an interesting one," I told her.
"Um-hm, I judged so, from what Lute said."
"Where is Lute?"
"Out in the barn, beddin' down the horse. That is, I told him to do that, but his head was so full of you and what you told him you said to Mr. Colton that I shouldn't be surprised if he's bedded down the hens and was huntin' in the manger for eggs."
"Lute thinks I've gone crazy," I observed.
"Um-hm. He was all for fetchin' the doctor right off, but I told him I cal'lated we could bear with your ravin's for a spell. Did you say what he said you said?"
"I'm afraid I did."
"Um-hm. Well, it didn't do any good, did it?"
"Good? What do you mean?"
"I mean he didn't obey orders—Colton, that is."
"He hadn't when I left."
"I thought not. I never saw any good come from profane language yet; and, besides, judgin' from what I hear about the way that Colton man lives, and what he does on Sundays and all, he'll make the port you sent him to when his time comes. All you need is patience."
I laughed, and she began sorting the plated spoons. We had silver ones, but Dorinda insisted on keeping those to use when we had company. In consequence we used them about twice a year, when the minister came.
"Of course," she said, "I ain't askin' you what happened over there or why he wanted to see you. But I give you fair warnin' that, if I don't, Lute will. Lute's so stuffed with curiosity that he's li'ble to bust the stitches any minute."
"I'll tell you both, at supper," I said.
"Um-hm," said Dorinda. "Well, I can wait, and Lute'll have to. By the way," she added, seeing me about to enter Mother's room, "if it's anything too unpleasant I wouldn't worry Comfort with it. She'll want to know, of course, but I'd sort of smooth the edges."
Mother did want to know, and I told her, "smoothing the edges" all I could. I omitted my final order to "Big Jim" and I said nothing whatever about his daughter. Mother seemed to think I had done right in refusing to sell, though, as usual, she was ready to make allowances for the other side.
"Poor woman," she said, "I suppose the noise of the wagons and all that are annoying to any one with weak nerves. It must be dreadful to be in that condition. I am so sorry for her."
She meant it, too. But I, remembering the Colton mansion, what I had seen of it, and contrasting its splendor with the bare necessity of that darkened bedroom, found it hard to spare pity for the sufferer from "nerves."
"You needn't be," I said, bitterly. "I imagine she wouldn't think of you, if the conditions were reversed. I doubt if she thinks of any one but herself."
"You shouldn't say that, Roscoe. You don't know. You have never met her."
"I have met the rest of the family. No, Mother, I think you needn't be sorry for that woman. She has everything under the sun. Whereas you—"
"Hush! hush! There is one thing she hasn't got. She hasn't a son like you, Boy."
"Humph! That must be a terrible deprivation. There! there! Mother, I won't be disagreeable. Let's change the subject. Did Matilda Dean come to see you this afternoon?"
"No. I presume she was too busy. But, Roscoe, it is plain enough why Captain Dean spoke to you about the Lane at the office this morning. He must have heard, somehow, that Mr. Colton wished to buy it."
"Yes. Or, if he didn't hear just that, he heard enough to make him guess the rest. He is pretty shrewd."
"You promised him you wouldn't sell without telling him beforehand. Shall you tell him of Mr. Colton's offer?"
"If he asks me, I shall, I suppose."
"I wonder what he will do then. Do you suppose he will try to persuade the Selectmen to buy the Lane for the town?"
"I don't know. I shouldn't wonder."
"It will be harder to refuse the town's offer."
"Yes. Although the town can't afford to pay Colton's prices. I believe that man would have raised his bid to a thousand, if I had let him. As a matter of business and nothing else, I suppose I am foolish not to push the price as high as possible and then sell. The land is worthless to us."
"I know. But this isn't just a matter of business, is it? And we DON'T need the money. We're not rich, but we aren't poor, are we, Boy."
"No. No, of course not. But, Mother, just see what I could do—for you—with a thousand dollars. Why, there are so many little things, little luxuries, that you need."
"I had rather not get them that way. No, Roscoe, I wouldn't sell to Mr. Colton. And I think I wouldn't sell to the town either."
"Well, because we don't have to sell, and selling to either party would make ill-feeling. I should—of course I'm only a woman; you are a man and know much more about such things than I—but why not let matters stay just as they are? The townspeople can use the Lane, just as they have always done, and, as I told you before, every one has been so kind to us that I like to feel we are doing a little in return. Let them use the Lane, without cost. Why not?"
"What do you think the Coltons would say to that?"
"Perhaps they don't understand the real situation. The next time you see Mr. Colton you could explain more fully; tell him what the Lane means to the town, and so on. I'm sure he would understand, if you told him that. And then, if the sight of the wagons was too annoying, he could put up some kind of a screen, or plant a row of fir trees by the fence. Don't you think so?"
I imagined the great man's reply to such a suggestion. However, I did not express my thoughts. I told Mother not to worry, I was sure everything would be all right, and, as Dorinda called me to supper, I went into the dining-room.
Lute was waiting for me at the table, and Dorinda, after taking the tray into Mother's room, joined us. Lute was so full of excitement and curiosity that he almost forgot to eat, a miracle of itself and made greater by the fact that he did not ask a single question until his wife asked one first. Then he asked three in succession. Dorinda, who was quite as curious as he but would not have shown it for the world, stopped him at the beginning of the fourth.
"There! there!" she said, sharply, "this is supposed to be a meal, not a parrot shop, and we're humans, not a passel of birds on a telegraph wire all hollerin' at once. Drink your tea and stop your cawin', Lute Rogers. Ros'll tell us when he gets ready. What DID Mr. Colton want of you, Roscoe?"
I told them as much of the interview at the Coltons' as I thought necessary they should know. Lute kept remarkably quiet, for him, until I named the figure offered by the millionaire. Then he could hold in no longer.
"Five hundred!" he repeated "Five hundred DOLLARS for the Shore Lane! Five—"
"He raised it to six hundred and fifty before I left," I said.
"SIX hundred! Six hundred—and FIFTY! For the Shore Lane! Six hun—"
"Sshh! shh!" cut in Dorinda. "You sound like Sim Eldredge sellin' somethin' at auction. DO be quiet! And you told him, Roscoe—?"
"I told you what I told him," I said.
"Um-hm. I ain't forgot it. Be quiet, Lute. Well, Roscoe, I cal'late you know your own affairs best, but, judgin' from some hints Matildy Dean hove out when she was here this afternoon, I don't believe you've heard the last from that Shore Lane."
"Matilda Dean!" I repeated. "Why, Mother said Matilda wasn't here to-day."
"Um-hm. Well, she was here, though Comfort didn't know it. I took pains she shouldn't. Matildy come about three o'clock, in the buggy, along with Nellie. Nellie was doin' the drivin', of course, and her mother was tellin' her how, as usual. I don't wonder that girl is such a meek, soft-spoken kind of thing. Between her pa's bullyin' and her ma's tongue, it's a wonder she's got any spirit left. It would be a mercy if George Taylor should marry her and take her out of that house. Matildy had a new book on Spiritu'lism and she was figgerin' to read some of it out loud to Comfort, but I headed her off. I know I wouldn't want to be all stirred up about 'tests' and 'materializations' and such, and so I told her Comfort was asleep."
"She wasn't asleep, neither," declared Lute. "What did you tell such a whopper as that for? You're always sailin' into me if I stretch a yarn the least mite. Why, last April Fool Day you give me Hail Columby for jokin' you about a mouse under the kitchen table. Called me all kinds of names, you did—after you got down off the table."
His wife regarded him scornfully. "It's pretty hard to remember which IS that partic'lar day with you around," she said. "I'd told Comfort she'd ought to take a nap and if she wan't takin' it 'twan't my fault. I wan't goin' to have her seein' her granddad's ghost in every corner. But, anyhow, Matildy made a little call on me, and, amongst the million other things she said, was somethin' about Cap'n Jed hearin' that Mr. Colton was cal'latin' to shut off that Lane. Matildy hinted that her husband and the Selectmen might have a little to say afore 'twas closed. If that's so I guess you may hear from him as well as the Colton man, Roscoe."
"Perhaps," I said. I could see no use in repeating my conversation with Captain Jed.
"Goin' to tell the town to go—where you sent the other one?" she asked, dryly.
"I don't know."
"Humph! Well," with some sarcasm, "it must be fine to be in a position where money's no object. I never tried it, myself, but it sounds good."
I did not answer.
"Um-hm," she said. "Well, anyhow it looks to me—Lute, you keep still—as if there was goin' to be two parties in Denboro afore this Lane business is over. One for the Coltons and one against 'em. You'll have to take one side or the other, won't you, Roscoe?"
"Goin' to set on the fence, hey?"
"That's a good place TO sit, isn't it?"
Dorinda smiled, grimly.
"If it's the right kind of a fence, maybe 'tis," she observed. "Otherwise the pickets are liable to make you uncomf'table after a spell, I presume likely."
I went out soon after this, for my evening smoke and walk by the bluff. As I left the dining-room I heard Lute reiterating his belief that I had gone crazy. Colton had said the same thing. I wondered what Captain Jed's opinion would be.
Whether it was another phase of my insanity or not, I don't know, but I woke the next morning in pretty good spirits. Remembrance of the previous day's humiliations troubled me surprisingly little. They did not seem nearly so great in the retrospect. What difference did it make to me what that crowd of snobs did or said or thought?
However, there was just enough bitterness in my morning's review of yesterday's happenings to make me a little more careful in my dress. I did not expect to meet my aristocratic neighbors—I devoutly wished it might be my good luck never to meet any of them again—but in making selections from my limited wardrobe I chose with more thought than usual. Dorinda noticed the result when I came down to breakfast.
"Got your other suit on, ain't you," she observed.
"Yes," said I.
"Goin' anywheres special?"
"No. Down to the boathouse, that's all."
"Humph! I don't see what you put those blue pants on for. They're awful things to show water spots. Did you leave your brown ones upstairs? Um-hm. Well, I'll get at 'em some time to-day. I noticed they was wearin' a little, sort of, on the bottoms of the legs."
I had noticed it, too, and this reminder confirmed my suspicions that others had made the same observations.
"I'll try and mend 'em this afternoon," went on Dorinda, "if I can find time. But, for mercy's sake, don't spot those all up, for I may not get time, and then you'd have to wear your Sunday ones."
I promised, curtly, to be careful, and, after saying good morning to Mother, I went down to the boathouse and set to work on the engine. It was the only thing in the nature of work that I had to do, but, somehow or other, I did not feel like doing it any more than I had the day before. A little of my good spirits were wearing off, like the legs of my "other" trousers, and after an hour of intermittent tinkering I threw down the wrench and decided to go for a row. The sun was shining brightly, but the breeze was fresh, and, as my skiff was low in the gunwale and there was likely to be some water flying, I put on an old oilskin "slicker" and sou-wester before starting.
I had determined to row across the bay over to the lighthouse, and ask Ben Small, the keeper, if there were any signs of fish alongshore. The pull was a long one, but I enjoyed every stroke of it. The tide was almost full, just beginning to ebb, so there was scarcely any current and I could make a straight cut across, instead of following the tortuous channel. My skiff was a flat bottomed affair, drawing very little, but in Denboro bay, at low tide, even a flat-bottomed skiff has to beware of sand and eel-grass.
Small was busy whitewashing, but he was glad to see me. If you keep a lighthouse, the average lighthouse, you are glad to see anybody. He put his brush into the pail and insisted on my coming to the house, because "the old woman," his wife, would want to hear "all the sewin' circle news." "It's the biggest hardship of her life," said Ben, "that she has to miss sewin' circle when the bay ices in. Soon's it clears she's at me to row her acrost to the meetin's. I've took her to two this spring, but she missed the last one, on account of this whitewashin', and she's crazy to know who's been talked about now. If anything disgraceful has happened for the land sakes tell her; then she'll he more reconciled."
I had nothing disgraceful to tell, but Mrs. Small was glad to see me, nevertheless. She brought out doughnuts and beach-plum jelly and insisted on my sampling both, the doughnuts because they were just made and she "mistrusted" there was too much flour in them, and the jelly because it was some she had left over and she wanted to see if I thought it was "keepin'" all right. After this, Ben took me out to see his hens, and then we walked to the back of the beach and talked fish. The forenoon was almost gone when I got back to the skiff. The tide had ebbed so far that the lightkeeper and I had to pull the little boat twenty feet to launch her.
"There!" said Ben, "now you're afloat, ain't you. Cal'late you'll have to go way 'round Robin Hood's barn to keep off the flats. I forgot about the tide or I wouldn't have talked so much. Hello! there's another craft about your size off yonder. Somebody else out rowin'. Two somebodys. My eyes ain't as good for pickin' em out as they used to be, but one of 'em IS a female, ain't it?"
I looked over my shoulder, as I sat in the skiff and saw, out in the middle of the bay, another rowboat with two people in it.
"That ain't a dory or a skiff," shouted Ben, raising his voice as I pulled away from him. "Way she sets out of water I'd call her a lap-streak dingy. If that feller's takin' his girl out rowin' he'll have to work his passage home against this tide . . . Well, so long, Ros. Come again."
I nodded a goodby, and settled down for my long row, a good deal longer this time on account of the ebb. There was water enough on this side of the bay, but on the village side the channel made a wide detour and I should be obliged to follow it for nearly a mile up the bay, before turning in behind the long sand bar which made out from the point beyond my boathouse.
The breeze had gone down, which made rowing easier, but the pull of the tide more than offset this advantage. However, I had mastered that tide many times before and, except that the delay might make me late for dinner, the prospect did not trouble me. I swung into the channel and set the skiff's bow against the current. Then from the beach I had just left I heard a faint hail. Turning my head, I saw Ben Small waving his arms. He was shouting something, too, but I was too far away to catch the words.
The lightkeeper continued to shout and wave. I lifted an oar to show that he had my attention. He recognized the signal, and began pointing out over the water astern of me. I looked where he was pointing. I could not see anything out of the ordinary. Except for my own skiff and the gulls, and the row boat with the two persons in it there was nothing astir on the bay. But Ben kept on waving and pointing. At last I decided that it must be the row boat he was pointing at. I stopped rowing and looked.
The row boat was a good distance off and its occupants were but specks. Now one of the specks stood up and waved its arms. So far as I could see, the boat was drifting; there were no flashes of sunlight on wet blades to show that the oars were in use. No, it was drifting, and, as I looked, it swung broadside on. The standing figure continued to wave its arms.
Those people must be in trouble of some sort, I decided, and it was evident that Small thought so, too. There could no imminent danger threaten for, on a day like this, with no sea running, there was nothing to fear in the bay. If, however, they should drift out of the bay it might be unpleasant. And they certainly were drifting. I resigned myself to the indefinite postponement of my dinner, swung the skiff about, and pulled as hard as I could in the direction of the row boat.
With the tide to help me I made good progress, but, even at that, it took me some time to overtake the drifting craft. She was, as Ben had said, a lap-streaked, keel-bottomed dingy—good enough as a yacht's tender or in deep water, but the worst boat in the world to row about Denboro bay at low tide. Her high rail caught what breeze there was blowing and this helped to push her along. However, I got within easy hailing distance after a while and called, over my shoulder, to ask what was the matter.
A man's voice answered me.
"We've lost an oar," he shouted. "We're drifting out to sea. Lend us a hand, will you?"
"All right," I answered. "I'll be there in a minute."
Within the minute I was almost alongside. Then I turned, intending to speak again; but I did not. The two persons in the dingy were Victor—I did not know his other name—and Mabel Colton.
I was wearing the oilskin slicker and had pulled down the brim of my sou'wester to keep the sun from my eyes; therefore they had not recognized me before. And I, busy at the oars and looking over my shoulder only occasionally, had not recognized them. Now the recognition was mutual. Miss Colton spoke first.
"Why, Victor!" she said, "it is—"
"What?" asked her companion. Then, looking at me, "Oh! it's you, is it?"
I did not answer. Luck was certainly against me. No matter where I went, on land or water, I was fated to meet these two.
Victor, apparently, was thinking the same thing. "By Jove!" he observed; "Mabel, we seem destined to . . . Humph! Well? Will you give us a hand?"
The most provoking part of it was that, if I had known who was in that rowboat, I could have avoided the encounter. Ben Small could have gone to their rescue just as well as I. However, here I was, and here they were. And I could not very well go away and leave them, under the circumstances.
Victor's patience was giving way.
"What are you waiting for?" he demanded. "Aren't you going to help us? We'll pay you for it."
I pulled the skiff a little closer and, drawing in my oars, turned and picked up the slack of my anchor rope.
"Here," I said, brusquely; "catch this line and I'll tow you."
I tossed him the loop of rope and he caught it.
"What shall I do with it?" he asked.
"Hold it, just as it is, for the present. What became of your other oar?"
"Lost it overboard."
"Why didn't you throw over your anchor and wait where you were?"
I think he had not thought of the anchor, but he did not deign to explain. Instead he began pulling on the rope and the two boats drew together.
"Don't do that," I said. "Wait."
I untied the rope, where it was made fast to the skiff's bow, and with it and the anchor in my hands, scrambled aft and wedged the anchor under the stern thwart of the little craft.
"Now," I said, "you can pull in the slack until you get to the end. Then make it fast to your bow somewhere."
I suppose he did his best to follow instructions, but the rope was a short one, the end jerked loose suddenly and he went backward in a heap. I thought, for an instant, that he was going overboard and that mine would be the mixed pleasure of fishing him out.
Miss Colton gave a little scream, which changed to a ripple of laughter. I might have laughed, too, under different circumstances, but just now I did not feel like it. Besides, the rope, having flown out of his hands, was in the water again and the two boats were drifting apart.
"What did you do that for?" demanded the fallen one, scrambling to his knees. I heard a sound from the dingy's stern as if the young lady was trying to stifle her merriment. Victor, doubtless, heard it, too.
"Where are you going?" he sputtered, angrily. "Give me that rope."
I gave it to him, literally gave it, for I pulled alongside and put the end in his hands.
"Tie it in the bow of your boat," I said. He did so. I drew in the slack until a fair towing length remained and made it fast. While he was busy I ventured to glance at Miss Colton. Her eyes were snapping with fun and she seemed to be enjoying the situation. But, catching my look, her expression changed. She turned away and looked indifferently out to sea.
I swung the skiff's bow around.
"Where do you want to go?" I asked.
Victor answered. "Back to Mr. Colton's landing," he said. "Get as much of a move on as you can, will you? I'll make it worth your while."
I was as anxious to get there as he was. I did not care for a quarrel, and I knew if he continued to use that tone in his remarks to me I should answer as I felt. I pulled with all my strength, but against the tide towing was hard work.
Victor sat on the amidships thwart of the dingy, with his back to me. But Miss Colton, seated in the stern, was facing me and I could not help looking at her. She did not look at me, or, if she did, it was as if I were merely a part of the view; nothing to be interested in, one way or the other.
She was beautiful; there was no doubt of that. Prettier even, in the blue and white boating costume and rough-and-ready white felt hat, than she had seemed when I saw her in the auto or her father's library. She represented the world that I had lost. I had known girls like her. They had not as much money as she, perhaps, but they were just as well-bred and refined, and almost as pretty. I had associated with them as an equal. I wondered what she would say, or think, if she knew that. Nothing, probably; she would not care enough to think at all. It did not matter to me what she thought; but I did wish I had not put on those fool oilskins. I must look more like a country longshoreman than ever.
If I had any doubts about it they were dispelled when I had rowed the two boats up the bay until we were abreast the Colton mansion. Then Victor, who had been talking in a low tone with his fellow passenger in the dingy, looked at the distant shore and, over his shoulder, at me.
"Here!" he shouted. "Where are you going? That's the landing over there."
"I know," I answered. "But we shall have to go around that flat. We can't cross here."
"Why? What's the reason we can't?"
"Because there isn't water enough. We should get aground."
He stood up to look.
"Nonsense!" he said. "There's plenty of water. I can't see any flat, or whatever you call it."
"It's there, though you can't see it. It is covered with eelgrass and doesn't show. We shall have to go a half mile further before we turn in."
"A half mile! Why, confound it! it's past one o'clock now. We haven't any time to waste."
"I'm sorry, but we can't cross yet. And, if I were you, I shouldn't stand up in that boat."
He paid no attention to this suggestion.
"There are half a dozen boats, bigger than these, by the landing," he declared. "There is water enough for them. What are you afraid of? We haven't any time to waste, I tell you."
I did not answer. Silence, on my part, was the safest thing just then. I continued rowing up the bay.
Miss Colton spoke to him and he sat down, a proceeding for which I was thankful. They whispered together for a moment. Then he turned to me.
"See here," he said; "this lady and I have an appointment. We must get ashore. Go straight in. If you're afraid I'll take the risk. If there is any danger I'll pay for that, too."
There was no question of risk. It was a certainty. I knew that channel.
"We can't cross here," I said, shortly.
"Why, confound you—"
"Victor!" cautioned Miss Colton.
"Hush, Mabel! This is ridiculous. You and I saw two boats go straight out from the beach this morning. We went out that way ourselves. Here you—Paine, or whatever your name is—we've had enough of this. I've hired you to take us ashore, and I want to go there and not a half mile in another direction. Will you do as I tell you?"
When the dingy and the other boats crossed the flat the tide had been hours higher, of course; but I was in no mood to explain—to him.
"No," I said, shortly.
"You won't? Then you give me an oar and I'll row the rest of the way myself."
There were only two oars in the skiff, but I could get on perfectly well with one. And it would serve him beautifully right to let him go. But there was the girl. I hesitated.
"Give me that oar," he repeated, angrily. "You won't? Then, by Jove, I'll do without it. Stop! Stop where you are! do you understand. We don't require your services any longer."
He turned and began untying the tow line. I stopped rowing.
Miss Colton looked troubled.
"Victor!" she cried. "What are you doing?"
"I know what I'm doing. Can't you see this fellow's game? The longer the row the higher his price, that's all. He can't work me. I've seen his kind before. Don't be frightened. If we can't do anything else we can anchor and wait until they see us from the house."
Idiot! At that point the channel was deep and the bottom soft mud. I doubted if his anchor would touch and, if it did, I knew it would not hold. I backed water and brought the skiff alongside the dingy, the rail of which I seized and held.
"Keep off!" ordered Victor, still fumbling with the rope. "We don't want your help."
I wasted no breath on him. I addressed my remarks to the girl.
"Miss Colton," I said, "will you listen to me, please. You can't anchor here because your anchor will not hold. And you can't cross that flat at this stage of the tide. I can give you an oar, of course, but it won't do any good. My oars are too light and small for your boat. Unless you wish to drift back where you were, or beyond, you must let me tow you around the head of this flat."
I don't know what answer she might have made. None, perhaps; although I am sure she was listening. But Victor, who had succeeded in untying the tow line, cut in ahead of her.
"Mabel," he warned, "don't pay any attention to him. Didn't your father tell us what he was? There!" throwing the end of the rope overboard and addressing me; "now, you may clear out. We've done with you. Understand?"
I looked at Miss Colton. But I might as well have looked at an iceberg. I slid one of my oars over into the dingy.
"There you are," I said, grimly. "But I warn you that you're in for trouble."
I let go of the rail and the boats fell apart. Victor seized the borrowed oar with a triumphant laugh.
"Your bluff wouldn't work, would it, Reuben," he sneered. "I'll send you the oar and your pay later. Now, Mabel, sit tight. I'll have you ashore in fifteen minutes."
He began rowing toward the weed-covered flat. I said nothing. I was furiously angry and it was some moments before I recovered self-possession sufficiently to get my remaining oar over the skiff's stern and, by sculling, hold her against the tide. Then I watched and waited.
It was not a long wait. Victor was in difficulties almost from the beginning. The oar belonging to the dingy was a foot longer than the one I had given him and he zig-zagged wildly. Soon he was in the edge of the eelgrass and "catching crabs," first on one side, then on the other. The dingy's bow slid up on the mud. He stood up to push it off, and the stern swung around. Getting clear, he took a fresh start and succeeded only in fouling again. This time he got further into the tangle before he grounded. The bow rose and the stern settled. There was a mighty splashing, as Victor pushed and tugged, but the dingy stuck fast. And there she would continue to stick for four hours unless I, or some one else, helped her off.
I did not want to help. In fact, I looked all up and down the bay before I made a move. But it was dinner time and there was not another soul afloat. More than that, I noticed, as I had not noticed before, that brown clouds—wind clouds—were piling up in the west, and, if I was anything of a prophet, we would have squalls and dirty weather long before those four hours were over. And the dingy, in that position, was not safe to face a blow. No, as the small boys say, it was "up to me." I wished it was not, but it was.
So again I went to the rescue, but this time in an entirely different frame of mind. My anger and resentment had settled to a cold determination, and this trip was purely business. I was not at a disadvantage now, as I had been when I first met that girl and her friend, in "Big Jim" Colton's library. I was master of this situation and master I intended to be.
I sculled the skiff straight in to the edge of the flat, at a point where the bank sloped sharply to deep water. I threw over my anchor, shortened the rope and made it fast. Then I stepped out into water above my shoe tops and waded toward the dingy. The water was icy cold, but I did not know it at the time.
I splashed through the eelgrass. Victor saw me coming and roared an angry protest. He was still trying to push the boat off with an oar.
"Here!" he shouted. "You keep away. We don't want you."
I did not care what he wanted. I splashed alongside the dingy and looked at her and the position she was in. My mind was made up instantly.
"You'll never get her off if you both stay aboard," I said. "Let the lady move amidships and you get out and wade."
He glared at me as if I were as crazy as Colton or Lute had declared me to be. Then he laughed contemptuously.
"You go back where you came from," he ordered. "I'm running this."
"Yes, I've noticed that. Now I'll state the facts as plainly as I can. This boat is fast aground in the mud, the tide is still going out, and there are squalls coming. She must be got off or there may be danger. You can't get her off until she is lightened. Will you get out and wade?"
He did not answer; instead he continued to push with the oar. I turned to the girl.
"Miss Colton," I said, "I must ask you to stand up. Be careful when you rise."
She made no move, nor did she reply. The look she gave me was enough.
"You must stand up," I repeated, firmly. "Either your—this gentleman—must get out, as I tell him to, or I shall have to carry you to my skiff. We haven't any time to spare."
She gazed at me in blank astonishment. Then the color flamed in her cheeks and her eyes flashed.
"We don't wish your help," she said, icily.
"I'm sorry, but that makes no difference. I—"
Victor whirled on me, the oar in his hands. I thought for an instant he was going to strike me with it.
"You blackguard!" he shouted. "Will you go away?"
I looked at him and then at her. It had to be done, and my mind was made up to do it. I waded in until the water was almost to my knees, and I was abreast the stern of the stranded boat.
"Miss Colton," I said, "I am going to carry you to my skiff. Are you ready?"
"You—Why!—" she breathed.
I stooped, lifted her in my arms, and ploughed through the weeds and water. The mud was soft and my feet sank into it. She struggled.
"You must keep still," I said, sharply, "or I shall drop you."
She gasped, but she stopped struggling. From behind me I heard a roar of rage from Victor.
I carried her to the anchored skiff and, plunging in still deeper, seated her on the stern thwart.
"Sit there, please, and don't move," I said. "I shall be back as soon as I've got your boat afloat."
I waded back to the dingy. Victor was frantic, but he did not disturb me. The worst of my unpleasant job was over.
"Now sit down," I ordered. "Do you hear me? Sit down and sit still."
"You—you—" he stammered.
"Because if you don't sit down," I continued serenely, "you're likely to tumble overboard. I'm going to push this boat off."
The first push helped to make up his mind. He sat, involuntarily. I pushed with all my might and, slowly and jerkily, the dingy slid off the shoal. But there were others all about. With one hand on the bow I guided her between them and to the edge of the channel. Then, wading along the slippery bank, I brought her to the skiff. My passenger had been making remarks in transit, but I paid no attention to them.
I made the rope fast for towing, took my oar from the dingy, pulled up the skiff's anchor and climbed aboard.
"Sit where you are," I said to Victor. "Miss Colton, please keep as still as possible."
I ventured to look at her as I said this, but I looked but once. All the way home I kept my gaze fixed on the bottom boards of the skiff.
I made the landing just in time. In fact, the squall struck before I was abreast the Colton place. The channel beyond the flat, which we had so lately left, was whipped to whitecaps in a moment and miniature breakers were beating against the mud bank where the dingy had grounded.
Under the high bluff it was calm enough. The tide was too low to make use of the little wharf, so I beached the skiff and drew the towed boat in by the line. I offered to assist Miss Colton ashore, but she, apparently, did not see my proffered hand. Victor scrambled out by himself. No one said anything. I untied the rope and pulled it in. Then I prepared to push off.
"Here!" growled Victor. "Wait a minute."
I looked up. He was standing at the edge of the water, with one hand in his pocket. Miss Colton was behind him.
"Well?" I asked.
"I haven't paid you yet," he said, sullenly. "How much?"
"What do you mean?" I asked. I knew, of course, but it pleased me to make him say it.
"Why, how much for towing us in? What's your price? Come, hurry up."
"I haven't any price. I'm not in the salvage business."
"Not—Say, don't bargain. What's your price, I ask you?"
"Nothing, of course. Very glad to have been of assistance."
I took up my oars.
"Here!" he shouted. "Stop! hold on! Confound you! do you suppose we don't intend to pay you for this?"
I shook my head. "It has been a pleasure," I said, sweetly. "Good day."
I rowed off, but all the way down to my boathouse I smiled contentedly. I had seen the look on Mabel Colton's face. I rather thought I had evened the account between us; at least I had reduced the balance a trifle. This time it was not I who appeared ridiculous.
Dorinda saw me when I entered the kitchen. Her hands were upraised.
"My soul and body!" she exclaimed. "LOOK at them pants! LOOK at 'em! And I ain't had time to put a needle to your other ones yet!"
The rain, which I expected would follow the squall, did not come until late that night, and it was still falling heavily the next morning. It was a warm rain, however, and, after breakfast, I walked up to the village. I said nothing, even to Mother, about the happenings in the bay, and Dorinda, who had asked many sarcastic questions concerning the state of my blue trousers—if I had "mistook 'em for a bathin' suit" and the like—seemed satisfied with my hurried explanation that I had gotten overboard. "Though how you fell in feet fust," she observed, "I don't see." She had mended my brown pair, sitting up until after two to do so.
Lute informed me that he had been up to the post-office. "Everybody's talkin' about them Coltons," he declared. "I see their automobile last night, myself. The Colton girl, she come into the store. My! she's a stunner, ain't she! Sim waited on her, himself, and gave her the mail. She wanted to buy some cheese—for a rabbit, she said. I never heard of feeding a rabbit on cheese, did you, Ros?"
"No," I replied, laughing. It was not worth while to explain.
"Nor nobody else, but her! I guess," continued Lute, "likely she was just jokin'. Anyhow, Sim was all out of cheese, but he had some nice print butter, just in. She didn't want no butter, though."
"Humph!" sniffed Dorinda. "Did Sim Eldredge cal'late she wanted to feed the rabbit butter? Was the Colton girl alone?"
"No. There was a young feller with her; the one that's visitin' 'em. Carver his name is—Victor Carver. Did you ever hear such a name in your life? Afore I'd name a child of mine Victor!"
"Um-hm. Well, I wouldn't waste time worryin' about that, if I was you. Look here, Lute Rogers, you didn't say anything about Roscoe's talk with Mr. Colton, did you?"
"No, no! no, no! Course I didn't."
"Yes. 'Taint likely I would, would I? Cap'n Jed was on hand, as usual, and he was full of questions, but he didn't get anything out of me. 'What did Colton say to Ros?' he says. 'How do I know what he said?' says I. 'I wan't there, was I?' 'Where was you that forenoon?' he says. 'Forenoon!' says I, 'that shows how much you know about it. 'Twas three o'clock in the afternoon.' Oh, I had the laugh on him!"
Dorinda looked at me and shook her head.
"It's too bad, Roscoe," she said. "But I was afraid of it as soon as I found he'd sneaked off to the post-office. I cal'late it's all over town by now."
"What do you mean by that?" Lute's dignity was outraged. "All over town! I never told him nothin'."
"No. Only that Ros and Mr. Colton were together and 'twas three o'clock in the afternoon. And goodness knows how much more! DO be quiet! Seems sometimes as if I should lose patience with you altogether. Is this Carver the Colton girl's young man? Are they engaged?"
"I don't know. I guess he's keepin' company with her, by the looks. I got as nigh to 'em as I could, but I didn't hear much they said. Only, just as they was goin' out, he said somethin' about goin' for a little spin in the car. She said no, her father would want his letters. Carver, he said, why not send Oscar home—that's the chauffeur, you know—with the letters, and he'd run the car himself. She kind of laughed, and said she guessed not, she'd taken one trip with him already that day and she didn't believe she cared for another. He seemed kind of put out about it, I thought."
I had been feeling rather provoked at Lute for giving Captain Jed the information concerning my interview with Colton; but, somehow, this other bit of news restored my good humor. When I started for the village I did not take the short cut across the fields, but followed my regular route, the path by the bluff and the Shore Lane. I was no longer fearful of meeting my new neighbors. The memory of the happenings in the bay was a delightful solace to my wounded self-respect. I chuckled over it as I walked through the dripping pines of the little grove. No matter how contemptuously indifferent that girl might pretend to be she would not forget what had taken place; that she had been obliged to obey my orders; that I had carried her to that skiff; that I had saved her from a danger—not a great danger, and against her will, of course—but saved her nevertheless. She was under an obligation to me; she could not help herself. How that must gall her. I remembered the look on her face as I rowed away. Sweet was revenge. And Victor—Victor was a joke.
When I reached the Lane I looked over at the Colton mansion. The rain had given the carpenters and painters an enforced holiday, and, except for the chauffeur, whom I could see through the open door of the garage, there was no one in sight. I think I was a little disappointed. If "Big Jim" had appeared and hailed me with another offer for the land I should not have dodged. I was ready for him. But neither he, or any one else, appeared and I walked on.
At the Corners, Sim Eldredge shouted to me from the platform of his store.
"Hi, Ros!" he shouted. "You! Ros Paine! come here a minute, will you?"
I did not want to see him. I had intended avoiding the post-office altogether. But I crossed to the platform.
"Say, Ros," he asked eagerly, "what's this about you and Mr. Colton?"
I was annoyed.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Why, you know, don't you? He come to see you and you went to see him over to his house. You had a reg'lar argument, I understand. About the Shore Lane, wan't it?"
"Who told you that?" I inquired, sharply.
"Why, nobody told me, exactly. Lute Rogers and Cap'n Jed was here last night and they got a-goin' as usual. The Cap'n does love to stir up Lute, and he commenced hintin' about somethin' of the kind. I don't know as they was hints, either, but Lute thought they was."
He grinned. I understood.
"I see," I said. "Well, what did Lute say?"
"I suppose he'd say he never said a word, but after he'd gone there was a kind of general sentiment that Colton wanted to buy the Shore Lane land off you, and that you and he had some words about it. Anyhow, you didn't sell the land, did you?"
"Suppose I did, or didn't; what of it?"
"Why, nothin', nothin'. Only, I tell you, Ros—" he looked carefully about to make sure no one was listening; "I tell you; it's just this way. I can understand how you feel about it. You know Dean and some of the others are sore on Mr. Colton 'cause he's got more money than they have, and they want to make all the trouble for him they can. Jed's got an idea that he's after that Lane, to close it off, and he's stirrin' up sentiment against its bein' closed. He's talkin' about the town buyin' it. Now of course I know your position. You want to get just as high a price as you can afore you sell."
"That's my position, is it?"
"It would be the position of any sensible man, wouldn't it? I don't blame you. Now, what I wanted to say was this." He bent forward and lowered his voice to a whisper. "Why don't you let me handle this thing for you? I can do it better'n you. I see Cap'n Jed every night, you might say. And I see consider'ble of Mr. Colton. He knows I'm postmaster in this town and sort of prominent. All the smart folks ain't in the Board of Selectmen. I'll keep you posted; see? You just set back and pretend you don't want to sell at all. Colton, he'll bid and Jed and his gang'll bid. I'll tell each what the other bids, and we'll keep her jumpin'. When we get to the last jump, we'll sell—and not afore. Of course Mr. Colton 'll get it, in the end."
"Oh, he will! What makes you think so?"
"What makes me think so? Don't be foolish. Ain't he a millionaire? How can Denboro stand up against a millionaire? I tell you, Ros, it's money counts in this world, and it pays to stand in with them that's got it. I'm goin' to stand in with Mr. Colton. But I'll pretend to stand in with Dean just as much. I can help a whole lot. Why, I shouldn't wonder if, between us, we could get—er—er—I don't know how much, for that land. What do you say?"
I smiled. "It's very kind of you, Sim, to be willing to go to so much trouble on my account," I observed. "I didn't know there was such disinterested kindness in Denboro."
Sim seemed a bit put out. "Why," he stammered, "I—I—of course I presumed likely you'd be willin' to pay me a little commission—or—or—somethin'. I thought I might be a sort of—er—agent for you. I've handled consider'ble real estate in my time—and—you see what I mean, don't you?"
"Yes," I said, drily; "I see. Well, Sim, if I decide to engage an agent I'll let you know. Good morning."
"But, hold on, Ros! I—"
I did not "hold on." I walked across the road and entered the bank. Alvin Baker met me in the vestibule. He seized my hand and shook it violently.
"I declare," he exclaimed, "it does me good to shake hands with a feller that's got the grit you have. It does so! We're all proud of you."
"Much obliged, Alvin, I'm sure. But why?"
He winked and nudged me with his elbow.
"You know why, all right," he whispered. "Wouldn't sell him the land, would you? Tell me: Did he make you a real bid for it? Lute as much as said he did."
For a person who had told nothing, Lute seemed to have "as much as said" a good many things. I shook my head.
"So you think I shouldn't sell the land?" I asked.
"Course you shouldn't—not to him. Ain't there such things as public spirit and independence? But I'll tell you somethin' more, Ros," mysteriously. "You may have a chance to sell it somewhere else."
"Yes, sir-ee! indeed! There's other public-spirited folks in Denboro as well as you. I know who they be and I stand in with 'em pretty close, too. I'm goin' to help you all I can."
"That's very kind of you, Alvin."
"No, no. I'm glad to do it. Shan't charge you nothin', neither."
"That's kinder still."
"No, 'tain't. . . Hold on a minute, Ros. Don't go. As I say, I'm goin' to work tooth and nail to get the town to buy that Lane property of yours. I'll stick out for you're gettin' a good price for it. I'll use all my influence."
"You needn't thank me. It's a matter of principle. We'll show these city folks they ain't the whole ship, cargo and all. . . . Hold on a second more. Ros, I—er—I wonder if you'd do a little favor for me."
"What is it, Alvin?"
"Why, it's this way. I've got a note here in the bank; put it there when I bought the power engine for my cat-boat. Hundred and fifty dollars, 'tis. You're a pretty good friend of George Taylor, cashier here, and I was wonderin' if you'd mind puttin' in a word with him about my gettin' it renewed when it comes due. Just tell him you think I'm all right, and a good risk, or somethin' like that."
I could not help smiling. Alvin seemed to find encouragement in the smile.
"George thinks consider'ble of you," he said. "And Captain Jed—he's one of the directors—he will, too, now that you've stood up to Colton. Just put in a word for me, will you? And don't forget I'm a friend of yours, and I'm strong for your gettin' a good, fair price from the town. Remember that, won't you?"
"I won't forget, Alvin. Good-by."
I left him and went into the bank. Henry Small, the bookkeeper, was at his desk. I walked over to speak to him, but he, looking up from his figures, spoke first. There was, or so it seemed to me, a different note in his greeting. It was more hearty, I thought. Certainly he regarded me with a new and curious interest.
"Morning, Ros," he said. "Well, how are you these days?"
I answered that I was well, and was moving on but he detained me.
"Lively times ahead, hey," he whispered.
"What sort of times?" I asked.
He winked. "I guess you know, if anybody does," he observed. "All right, you'll have good friends on your side. I ain't saying anything, of course, but I'm on, all right."
He winked again. I walked back to the cashier's window. Taylor had, evidently, seen me talking with the bookkeeper, for he was standing by the little gate, waiting for me.
"Hello, Ros," he said. "Glad to see you. Come in."
George Taylor was a type of smart country boy grown to manhood in the country. His tone, like his manner, was sharp and quick and businesslike, but he spoke with the Down-East twang and used the Cape phrases and metaphors. He was younger than I, but he looked older, and, of late, it had seemed to me that he was growing more nervous. We shook hands.
"Glad to see you," he said again. "I was hoping you'd drift in. I presumed likely you might. Sit down."
I took the proffered chair. He looked at me with much the same curious interest that Small had shown.
"We've been hearing about you," he said. "You've been getting yourself talked about."
I mentally cussed Lute once more for his loquacity.
"I'll break the fellow's neck," I declared, with emphasis.
He laughed. "Don't do that yet awhile," he said. "The market is in bad enough shape as it is. If his neck was broke the whole of Wall Street would go to pot."
"Wall Street? What in the world has Lute got to do with Wall Street?"
"Lute! Oh, I see! Yes, Lute's been doing considerable talking, but it ain't his neck I mean. Say, Ros, what did you do to him, anyway? You stirred him up some, judging by what he said to me."
"Who said? What?"
"Why, Colton. He was in here yesterday. Opened what he called a household account; that was his main business. But he asked about you, along with it."
This explained some things. It was clear now why Small had appeared so interested. "Oh!" I said.
"You bet he did. Wanted to know if I knew you, and what you were, and so on. I told him I knew you pretty well. 'What sort of a fellow is he? A damn fool?' he asked. I strained the truth enough to say you were a pretty good fellow and a long ways from that kind of a fool, according to my reckoning. 'Umph!' says he. 'Is he rich?' I told him I guessed you wan't so rich that you got round-shouldered lugging your money. 'Why?' says I, getting curious. 'Have you met him, Mr. Colton? If you have you ought to have sized him up yourself. I always heard you were a pretty fair judge.' He looked at me kind of funny. 'I thought I was,' says he, 'but you seem to raise a new variety down here.' Then I guess he thought he'd said enough. At any rate, he walked off. What did you and he say to each other, Ros?"
I did not answer immediately. When I did the answer was non-committal. "Oh, we had a business interview," I said.
He nodded. "Well," he observed, "I suppose it's your affair and not mine. But, I tell you this, Ros: if it's what I suppose it is, it'll be everybody's affair pretty soon."
"You think so, do you?"
"I know so. Cap'n Jed's a fighter and he is on the war path. The two sides are lining up already. Whichever way you decide you'll make enemies, of course."
I shrugged my shoulders. The prospect of enemies, more or less, in Denboro, did not trouble me.
"But you'll have to decide," he went on, "who you'll sell to."
"Or not sell at all," I suggested.
"Can you afford to do that? There'll be money—a whole lot of money—in this before it's over, if I know the leaders on both sides. You've got the whip-hand. There'll be money in it. Can you afford to let it slip?"
I did not answer. Suddenly his expression changed. He looked haggard and care-worn.
"By the Almighty," he said, between his teeth, and without looking at me, "I wish I had your chance."
"Oh, nothing, nothing. . . . How's your mother nowadays?"
I told him that my mother was much as usual, and we talked of various things.
"By the way," he said, "I've got some news for you. Nothing surprising. I guess all hands have seen it coming. I'm engaged to be married."
"Good!" said I, with as much heartiness as I could answer; marriage did not interest me. "Congratulations, George. Nellie Dean, of course."
"I'm glad for you. And for her. She'll make you a good wife, I'm sure."
He drew a long breath. "Yes," he said slowly, "Nellie's a good girl."
"When is the—what do they call it? the happy event to take place?"
"In the fall some time, if all goes well. I hope it will."
"Humph! Yes, I should think you might hope as much as that. Why shouldn't it go well?"
"Hey? Oh, of course it will!" He laughed and rose from his chair as several men came into the bank. "I'll have to leave you, Ros," he said. "There's a directors' meeting this morning. They're coming now."
As I passed out of the gate and through the group of directors I noticed that they also regarded me with interest. Two, men from neighboring towns whom I scarcely knew, whispered to each other. Captain Elisha Warren shook hands with me and inquired concerning Mother. The last of the group was Captain Jedediah Dean, and he touched me on the shoulder.
"Ros," he whispered, "you're all right. Understand? I say you're all right."
"Thanks," I answered, briefly.
"I heard about it," he whispered. "Ase Peters said the Grand Panjandrum was cranky as a shark with the toothache all day yesterday. You must tell me the yarn when we get together. I missed you when I called just now, but I'll be down again pretty soon. You won't lose nothin' by this. So long."
As I came down the bank steps Sim Eldredge called across the road.
"Good-by, Ros," he shouted. "Come in again next time you're up street."
In all my period of residence in Denboro I had never before been treated like this. People had never before gone out of their way to shake hands with me. No one had considered it worth while to ask favors of me. Sim and Alvin were not to be taken seriously, of course, and both were looking after their own pocketbooks, but their actions were straws proving the wind to be blowing in my direction. I thought, and smiled scornfully, that I, all at once, seemed to have become a person of some importance.
But my scorn was not entirely sincere. There was a certain gratification in the thought. I might pretend—I had pretended—that Denboro opinion, good or bad, was a matter of complete indifference to me. I had assumed myself a philosopher, to whom, in the consciousness of right, such trifles were of no consequence. But, philosophy or not, the fact remained that I was pleased. People might dislike me—as that lofty Colton girl and her father disliked me, though they could dislike me no more than I did them—but I could compel them to respect me. They already must think of me as a man. And so on—as I walked home through the wet grass. It was all as foolish and childish and ridiculous as it well could be. I deserved what was coming to me—and I got it.
For, as I came down the Lane, I met Oscar, the chauffeur, and a companion, whom I judged to be a fellow servant—the coachman, I learned afterwards—walking in the direction of the village. The rain had ceased, but they wore natty raincoats and caps and had the city air of smartness which I recognized and envied, even in them. The footpath was narrow, but they apparently had no intention of stepping to one side, so I made way for them. They whispered together as they approached and looked at me curiously as we passed. A few steps further on I heard them both burst out laughing. I caught the words, from Oscar, "fool Rube" and "the old man'll make him look—" I heard no more, but as I turned into the grove I saw them both looking after me with broad grins on their faces.
Somebody has said that there is nothing harder to bear than the contempt and ridicule of servants. For one thing, you cannot resent it without a loss of dignity, and, for another, you may be perfectly sure that theirs is but the reflection of their employers' frame of mind. This encounter shook my self-satisfaction more than a little. It angered me, but it did more than that; it brought back the feeling I had when I left the Colton library, that my defiance was not, after all, taken seriously. That I was regarded by Colton as just what Oscar had termed me, a "fool Rube." When George Taylor told me of the great man's questions concerning my foolishness, I accepted the question as a tribute to my independence. Now I was not so sure.
Dorinda met me at the door.
"You've had two callers," she said.
"So? Who were they?"
"One of 'em was Cap'n Jed. He drove down just after you left. He come to see you about that land, I cal'late."
"Oh, yes. I remember he told me he missed me this morning. So he came here?"
"Um-hm. Him and me had a little talk. He seemed to know consider'ble about your rumpus with Mr. Colton."
"How did he know?"
"He wouldn't say, but I wouldn't wonder if he got a lot from Ase Peters. Ase and he are pretty thick; he's got a mortgage on Ase's house, you know. And Ase, bein' as he's doin' the carpenterin' over to Colton's, hears a lot from the servants, I s'pose likely. Leastways, if they don't tell all their bosses' affairs they're a new breed of hired help, that's all I've got to say. Cap'n Jed says Mr. Colton cal'lates you're a fool."
"Yes. So I've heard. What did the Captain say to that?"
"Seemed to think 'twas a pretty good joke. He said he didn't care how big a fool you was so long's you was feeble-minded on the right side."
So there it was again. My imagined importance in the eyes of the townspeople simmered down to about that. I was an imbecile, but they must pretend to believe me something else because I owned something they wanted. Well, I still owned it.
"Of course," continued Dorinda, "I didn't tell him you was figgerin' not to sell the land at all. If I had, I s'pose he'd have thought—"
She stopped short.
"You suppose what?" I asked.
She had said enough. I could guess the rest. I walked to the window and stood, looking out. The clouds were breaking and, as I stood there, a ray of sunlight streamed through a rift and struck the bay just at the spot where the dingy had grounded. The shallow water above the flat flashed into fire. I am not superstitious, as a general thing, but the sight comforted me. It seemed like an omen. There was the one bright spot in the outlook. There, at least, I had not behaved like a "fool Rube." There I had compelled respect and been taken seriously.
Dorinda spoke again.
"You ain't asked who your other caller was," she observed.
"Was there another?"
"Um-hm. I told you there was two. After Cap'n Jed left that chauffeur feller from the big house come here. He fetched a note for you. Here 'tis."
I took the note. It was addressed to me in a man's handwriting, not that of "Big Jim" Colton. I opened the envelope and read:
Sir: The enclosed is in payment for your work. No receipt is necessary.
B. VICTOR CARVER.
The "enclosed" was a five-dollar bill.
I stood staring at the note. Then I began to laugh.
"What's the joke?" asked Dorinda, who had not taken her eyes from my face.
"This," said I, handing her the money. She looked at it in astonishment.
"Um-hm," she said, drily. "Well, I—well, a five-dollar bill may be a joke to you, but I ain't familiar enough with one to laugh at it. You don't laugh as if 'twas awful funny, either. Who's the joke on?"
"It's on me, just now.
"Um-hm. I'd be willin' to be joked ten times a day, at that price. And I'd undertake to laugh heartier than you're doin', too. What's it for? the money, I mean."
"It's for some 'work' I did yesterday."
She was more astonished than ever.
"Work! You?" she exclaimed.
"Yes. But don't worry; I shan't do it again."
"Land! THAT wouldn't worry me. What sort of work was it?"
"Oh, I—I picked up something adrift in the bay."
"Um-hm. I see. Somethin' belongin' to the Coltons, I s'pose likely. Why won't you do it again? Ain't they paid you enough?"
Again I laughed. "They have paid me too much," I said, bitterly. "What I picked up wasn't worth the money."
And that, in the end, was the answer I sent to Carver with his five dollars. I spent an hour in my room trying to compose and write a sarcastic reply to his note, but I finally gave it up. Then I put the money in an envelope, addressed the latter, and sent it to the big house by Lute. Lute was delighted with the errand.
"You'll explain to Dorindy, will you?" he asked. "She cal'lates I'm goin' to clean the henhouse. But I can do that some other time."
"Do you know—" Lute leaned against the clothes post and prepared to philosophize. "Do you know," he observed, "that I don't take no stock in cleanin' henhouses and such?"
"Don't you? I'm surprised."
"You're surprised 'cause you ain't thought it out. That's my way; I always think things out. Most folks are selfish. They want to do what they want to do, and they want others to want the same thing. If the others don't want it, then they like to make 'em have it; anyhow. Dorindy is crazy on cleanin'. She wouldn't live in a dirty house no more'n she'd live in a lobster pot. It's the way she's made. But a hen ain't made that way. A hen LIKES dirt; she scratches in it and digs holes in it to waller in, and heaves it over herself all day long. If you left it to the hens would THEY clean their house? I guess not! So, I say what's the use of cruelizin' 'em by makin' 'em live clean when they don't want to? I—"
"Wait a minute," I interrupted. "Lute, you're wasting your breath. It is Dorinda you should explain all this to, not to me. And you're wasting my time. I want you to take that envelope to Mr. Carver; and I want you to go now."
"Well, I'm goin', ain't I? I was only just sayin'—"
"Say it when you come back. And if Mr. Carver asks you why I sent that envelope to him be sure and give him the message I gave you. Do you remember it?"
"Sartin. That what you done wan't wuth so much."
"Not exactly. That what I saved wasn't worth it."
"All right. I'll remember. But what did you save, Ros? Dorindy says 'twas somethin' you found afloat in the bay. If it was somethin' belongin' to them Coltons I'd have took the money, no matter what the thing was wuth. They can afford to pay and, if I was you, I'd take the reward."
"I have my reward. Now go."
I had my reward and I believed it worth much more than five dollars. I had learned my lesson. I knew now exactly how I was regarded by the occupants of the big house and by the townspeople as well. I should cherish no more illusions as to my importance in their eyes. I meant to be really independent from that time on. I did not care—really did not care—for anything or anybody outside my immediate household. I was back in the position I had occupied for years, but with one difference: I had an ambition now. It was to make both sides in the Shore Lane controversy realize that George Taylor was right when he said I had the whip-hand. By the Almighty, they should dance when I cracked that whip!
My first opportunity to crack it came a day or two later, when Captain Dean called upon me. He had a definite proposition to make, although his Yankee shrewdness and caution prevented his making it until he had discussed the weather and other unimportant trifles. Then he leaned against the edge of my work-bench—we were in the boathouse—and began to beat up to windward of his proposal.
"Ros," he said, "you remember I told you you was all right, when I met you at the bank t'other day."
"I remember," I answered.
"Yes. Well, I cal'late you know what I meant by that."
I did not pretend ignorance of his meaning.
"I presume," I replied, "that you meant I was right in not selling that strip of land to Mr. Colton."
"That's what I meant. You kept your promise to me and I shan't forget it. Nor the town won't forget it, neither. Would you mind tellin' me just what happened between you and His Majesty?"
"Not at all. He said he wanted to buy the Shore Lane strip and I refused to sell it to him. He said I was crazy and an infernal robber and I told him to go to the devil."
"WHAT! you didn't!"
Captain Jed slapped his knee and shouted in delight. He insisted on shaking hands with me.
"By the great and everlastin'!" he declared, between laughs, "you're all right, Ros Paine! I said you was and now I'll swear to it. Told old Colton to go to the devil! If that ain't—oh, I wish I'd been there!"
I went on sand-papering a valve plug. He walked up and down the floor, chuckling.
"Well," he said, at last, "you've made yourself solid in Denboro, anyhow. And I told you you shouldn't lose nothin' by it. The Selectmen held a meetin' last night and they feel, same as me, that that Shore Lane shan't be shut off. You understand what that means to you, don't you?"
I looked at him, coolly.
"No," I answered.
"You don't! It means the town's decided to buy that strip of land of yours. Definitely decided, practically speakin'. Now what'll you sell it to us for?"
I put down the valve plug. "Captain," said I, "that land is not for sale."
"Not for SALE? What do you mean by that?"
"I mean that I have decided not to sell it, for the present, at least. Neither to Colton nor any one else."
He could not believe it. Of course I would not sell it to Colton. Colton was a stuck-up, selfish city aristocrat who thought all creation ought to belong to him. But the town was different. Did I realize that it was the town I lived in that was asking to buy now? The town of which I was a citizen? Think of what the town had done for me.
"Very well," I answered. "I'm willing to think. What has it done for me?"
It had—it had—well, it had done a whole lot. As a citizen of that town I owed it a—a—
"Look here, Captain Dean," I interrupted, "there's no use in our arguing the matter. I have decided not to sell."
"Don't talk so foolish. Course you'll sell if you get money enough."
"So Colton said, but I shan't."
"Ros, I ain't got any authority to do it, but I shouldn't wonder if I could get you three hundred dollars for that strip."
"It isn't a question of price."
"Rubbish! Anything's a question of price."
"This isn't. If it was I probably should have accepted Mr. Colton's offer of six hundred and fifty."
"Six hun—! Do you mean to say he offered you six hundred and fifty dollars for that little mite of land, and you never took him up?"
"Well, you must be a . . . Humph! Six hundred and fifty! The town can't meet no such bid as that, of course."
"I don't expect it to."
He regarded me in silence. He was chagrined and angry; his florid face was redder than ever; but, more than all, he was puzzled.
"Well," he observed, after a moment, "this beats me, this does! Last time we talked you was willin' to consider sellin'. What's changed you? What's the reason you won't sell? What business reason have you got for not doin' it?"
I had no business reason at all. Except for Mother's counsel not to sell, which was based upon sentiment and nothing else, and my own stubbornness, I had no reason at all. Yet I was, if anything, more firm in my resolve.
"How about the Lane?" he demanded. "You know what that Lane means to Denboro?"
"I know what you say it means. The townspeople can continue to use the Lane, just as they always have, so long as they behave themselves. There is no use of our talking further, Captain. I've made up my mind."
He went away, soon after, but he asked another question.
"Will you do this much for me?" he asked. "Will you promise me not to sell the land to Colton?"
"No," I said, "I will make no promise of any kind, to anybody."
"Oh," with a scornful sniff, "I see. I'm on to you. You're just hangin' out for a big price. I might have known it. You're on Colton's side, after all."
I rose. I was angry now.
"I told you price had nothing to do with it," I said, sharply. "I am on no one's side. The town is welcome to use the Lane; that I have told you already. There is nothing more to be said."
He shook his head.
"I don't make many mistakes," he observed, slowly; "but I guess I've made one. You're a whole lot deeper'n I thought you was."
So much for the proletariat. I heard from the plutocrats next day. Sim Eldredge dropped in on me. After much wriggling about the bush he intimated that he knew of Captain Jedediah's call and what had taken place.
"You done just right, Ros," he whispered. He had a habit of whispering as the Captain had of shouting. "You done just right. Keep 'em guessin'; keep em guessin'. Jed's all upsot. He don't know whether he's keel down or on his beam ends. He'll be makin' a higher bid pretty soon. Say," with a wink, "I see Colton last night."
"Yup. Oh, I give him a jolt. I hinted that the town had made you a fine offer and you was considerin' it."
"What did you do that for? Who gave you the right to—"
"Sshh! Don't holler. Somebody might be listenin'. I come through the woods and round the beach so's I wouldn't be seen. What do you s'pose Colton said?"
"I don't care what he said."
"You will when I tell you. He as much as offered a thousand dollars for that land. My crimps! a thousand! think of that! I presume likely you wouldn't take that, would you, Ros?"
"Sim, I'll tell you, as I told Captain Jed, that land is not for sale."
I tried to make that statement firm and sharp enough to penetrate even his wooden head; but he merely winked again.
"All right," he whispered, hastily, "all right. I guess perhaps you're correct in hangin' on. Still, a thousand is a lot of money, even after you take out my little commission. But you know best. You put your trust in me. I'll keep her jumpin'. I understand. Good-by."
He went out hurriedly, and, though I shouted after him, he only waved and ducked behind a beach-plum bush. He did not believe me serious in my refusal to sell; neither did Dean, or Colton, or, apparently, any one else. They all thought me merely shrewd, a sharp trader driving a hard bargain, as they would have done in my place. They might think so, if they wished; I should not explain. As a matter of fact, I could not have explained my attitude, even to myself.
Yet this very attitude made a difference, a perceptible difference, in my position in Denboro. I noticed it each time I went up to the village. I saw the groups at the post-office and at the depot turn to watch me as I approached and as I went away. Captain Jedediah did not mention the Lane again—at least for some time—but he always hailed me cordially when we met and seemed anxious to be seen in my company. Eldredge, of course, was effusive; so was Alvin Baker. And other people, citizens of consequence in the town, who had heretofore merely bowed, now stopped to speak with me on the street. Members of the sewing circle called on Mother more frequently, and Matilda Dean, Captain Jed's wife, came regularly once a week. Sometimes she saw Mother and sometimes she did not, depending upon Dorinda's state of mind at the time.
Lute, always a sort of social barometer, noticed the change in the weather.
"Everybody's talkin' about you, Ros," he declared. "They cal'late you're a pretty smart feller. They don't just understand what you're up to, but they think you're pretty smart."
"No?" I commented, ironically. "Lute, you astonish me. Why am I smart?"
"Well, they don't know exactly, but they cal'late you must be. Oh, I hear things. Cap'n Jed said t'other night you'd make a pretty good Selectman."
"I would? A Selectman?"
"Yup. He as much as hinted that to me; wondered if you'd take the nomination provided he could fix it for you. Sim Eldredge and Alvin and some more all said they'd vote for you if they got a chance. ARE you figgerin' to charge toll on the Lane?"
"Toll? What put that idea in your head?"
"Nothin', only some of the fellers wondered if you was. You see, you won't sell, and so—"
"I see. That's a brilliant suggestion, Lute. When I adopt it I'll appoint you toll-keeper."
"By time! I wish you would. I'd make Thoph Newcomb pay up. He owes me ten cents; bet it one time and never settled."
Yes, my position in Denboro had changed. But I took no pride in the change, as I had at first; I knew the reason for this sudden burst of popularity. The knowledge made me more cynical than ever—cynical, and lonely. For the first time since I came to the Cape I longed for a real friend, not a relative or an acquaintance, but a friend to trust and confide in. Some one, with no string of his own to pull, who cared for me because I was myself.
And all the time I had such a friend and did not realize it. The knowledge came to me in this way. Mother had one of her seizures, one of the now infrequent "sinking spells," as the doctor called them, on an evening when I was alone with her. Dorinda and Lute had gone, with the horse and buggy, to visit a cousin in Bayport. They were to stay over night and return before breakfast the next morning.
I was alone in the dining-room when Mother called my name. There was something in her tone which alarmed me and I hastened to her bedside. One glance at her face was enough.
"Boy," she said, weakly, "I am afraid I am going to be ill. I have tried not to alarm you, but I feel faint and I am—you won't be alarmed, will you? I know it is nothing serious."
I told her not to worry and not to talk. I hurried out to the kitchen, got the hot water and the brandy, made her swallow a little of the mixture, and bathed her forehead and wrists with vinegar, an old-fashioned restorative which Dorinda always used. She said she felt better, but I was anxious and, as soon as it was safe to leave her, hurried out to bring the doctor. She begged me not to go, because it was beginning to rain and I might get wet, but I assured her it was not raining hard, and went.
It was not raining hard when I started, but there was every sign of a severe storm close at hand. It was pitch dark and I was weary from stumbling through the bushes and over the rough path when I reached the corner of the Lane and the Lower Road. Then a carriage came down that road. It was an open wagon and George Taylor was the driver. He had been up to the Deans' and was on his way home.
I hailed the vehicle, intending to ask for a ride, but when Taylor discovered who his hailer was he insisted on my going back to the house. He would get the doctor, he said, and bring him down at once. I was afraid he would be caught in the storm, and hesitated in accepting the offer, but he insisted. I did go back to the house, found Mother in much the same condition as when I left her, and had scarcely gotten into the kitchen again when Taylor once more appeared.
"I brought Nellie along to stay with your mother," he said. "The Cap'n and the old lady"—meaning Matilda—"were up at the meeting-house and we just left a note saying where we'd gone. Nellie's all right. Between you and me, she don't talk you deaf, dumb and blind like her ma, and she's good company for sick folks. Now I'll fetch the doctor and be right back."
"But it's raining pitchforks," I said. "You'll be wet through."
"No, I won't. I'll have Doc Quimby here in no time."
He drove off and Nellie Dean went into Mother's room. I had always considered Nellie a milk-and-watery young female, but somehow her quiet ways and soft voice seemed just what were needed in a sick room. I left the two together and came out to wait for Taylor and the doctor.
But they did not come. The storm was under full headway now, and the wind was dashing the rain in sheets against the windows. I waited nearly an hour and still no sign of the doctor.
Nellie came out of Mother's room and closed the door softly behind her.
"She's quiet now," she whispered. "I think she's asleep. Where do you suppose George is?"
"Goodness knows!" I answered. "I shouldn't have let him go, a night like this."
"I'm afraid you couldn't stop him if his mind was made up. He's dreadful determined when he sets out to be."
"He's a good fellow," I said, to please her. She worshipped the cashier, a fact of which all Denboro was aware, and which caused gossip to report that she did the courting for the two.
She blushed and smiled.
"He thinks a lot of you," she observed. "He's always talking to me about you. It's a good thing you're a man or I should be jealous."
I smiled. "I seem to be talked about generally, just now," said I.
"Are you? Oh, you mean about the Shore Lane. Yes, Pa can't make you out about that. He says you've got something up your sleeve and he hasn't decided what it is. I asked George what Pa meant and he just laughed. He said whatever you had in your sleeve was your affair and, if he was any judge of character, it would stay there till you got ready to shake it out. He always stood up for you, even before the Shore Lane business happened. I think he likes you better than any one else in Denboro."
"Present company excepted, of course."
"Oh, of course. If that wasn't excepted I should REALLY be jealous. Then," more seriously, "Roscoe, does it seem to you that George is worried or troubled about something lately?"
I thought of Taylor's sudden change of expression that day in the bank, and of his remark that he wished he had my chance. But I concealed my thoughts.
"The prospect of marriage is enough to make any man worried, isn't it?" I asked. "I imagine he realizes that he isn't good enough for you."
There was sarcasm in this remark, sarcasm of which I should have been ashamed. But she took it literally and as a compliment. She looked at me reproachfully.
"Good enough for me!" she exclaimed. "He! Sometimes I wonder if it is right for me to be so happy. I feel almost as if it was wrong. As if something must happen to punish me for it."