I did not answer. To tell the truth, I was envious. There was real happiness in the world. This country girl had found it; that Mabel Colton would, no doubt, find it some day—unless she married her Victor, in which case I had my doubts. But what happiness was in store for me?
Nellie did most of the talking thereafter; principally about George, and why he did not come. At last she went in to see if Mother needed her, and, twenty minutes later, when I looked into the bedroom, I saw that she had fallen asleep on the couch. Mother, too, seemed to be sleeping, and I left them thus.
It was almost eleven o'clock when the sound of carriage wheels in the yard brought me to the window and then to the door. Doctor Quimby had come at last and Taylor was with him. The doctor, in his mackintosh and overshoes, was dry enough, but his companion was wet to the skin.
"Sorry I'm so late, Ros," said the doctor. "I was way up to Ebenezer Cahoon's in West Denboro. There's a new edition of Ebenezer, made port this morning, and I was a little bit concerned about the missus. She's all right, though. How's your mother?"
"Better, I think. She's asleep now. So is Nellie. I suppose George told you she was with her."
"Yes. George had a rough passage over that West Denboro road. It's bad enough in daylight, but on a night like this—whew! I carried away a wheel turning into Ebenezer's yard, and if George hadn't had his team along I don't know how I'd have got here. I'll go right in and see Mrs. Paine."
He left us and I turned to Taylor.
"You're soaked through," I declared. "Come out to the kitchen stove. What in the world made you drive way up to that forsaken place? It's a good seven miles. Come out to the kitchen. Quick!"
He sat down by the stove and put his wet boots on the hearth. I mixed him a glass of the brandy and hot water and handed him a cigar.
"Why did you do it, George?" I said. "I never would have thought of asking such a thing."
"I know it," he said. "Course you wouldn't ask it. There's plenty in this town that would, but you wouldn't. Maybe that's one reason I was so glad to do it for you."
"I am almost sorry you did. It is too great a kindness altogether. I'm afraid I shouldn't have done as much for you."
"Go on! Yes, you would. I know you."
I shook my head.
"No, you don't," I answered. "Captain Jed—your prospective father-in-law—said the other day that he had been mistaken; he thought he knew me, but he was beginning to find he did not."
"Did he say that? What did he mean?"
"I imagine he meant he wasn't sure whether I was the fool he had believed me to be, or just a sharp rascal."
Taylor looked at me over the edge of his glass.
"You think that's what he meant, do you?"
"I know it."
He put the glass on the floor beside him and laid a hand on my knee.
"Ros," he said, "I don't know for sure what the Cap'n meant, though if he thinks you're either one of the two he's the fool. But I know you—better, maybe, than you know yourself. At least I believe I know you better than any one else in the town."
"That wouldn't be saying much."
"Wouldn't it? Well, maybe not. But whose fault is it? It's yours, the way I look at it. Ros, I've been meaning to have a talk with you some day; perhaps this is as good a time as any. You make a big mistake in the way you treat Denboro and the folks in it."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean just that. Your whole attitude is wrong, has been wrong ever since you first came here to live. You never gave any of us a chance to know you and like you—anybody but me, I mean, and even I never had but half a chance. You make a mistake, I tell you. There's lots of good folks in this town, lots of 'em. Cap'n Elisha Warren's one of 'em and there's plenty more. They're countrymen, same as I am, but they're good, plain, sensible folks, and they'd like to like you if they had a chance. You belong to the Town Improvement Society, but you never go to a meeting. You ought to get out and mix more."
I shrugged my shoulders. "I guess my mixing wouldn't be very welcome," I said. "And, besides, I don't care to mix."
"I know you don't, but you ought to, just the same."
"Nonsense! George, I'm not blind, or deaf. Don't you suppose I know what Warren and Dean and the rest think of me? They consider me a loafer and no good. I've heard what they say. I've noticed how they treat me."
"How you treat them, you mean. You are as cold and freezing as a cake of ice. They was willing to be friends but you wouldn't have it. And, as for their calling you a loafer—well, that's your own fault, too. You OUGHT to do something; not work, perhaps, but you'd be a whole lot better off if you got really interested in something. Get into politics; get into town affairs; get out and know the people you're living with."
"I don't care to know them; and I'm sure they don't care to know me."
"Yes, they do. I understand how you feel. In this Shore Lane matter now: you think Cap'n Jed and Colton, because they pretend to call you a fool, don't respect you for taking the stand you have. They do. They don't understand you, maybe, but they can't help respecting you and, if they knew you even as well as I do, they'd like you. Come! I ain't throwin' any bouquets, but why do you suppose I'd be willing to drive to West Denboro forty times over, on forty times worse nights than this, for you? Why?"
"Heaven knows! Would you?"
"I would. I like you, Ros. I took a shine to you the first time I met you. I don't know why exactly. Why does anybody like anybody else? But I think a whole lot of you. I know this sounds foolish, and you don't feel that way towards me, but it's the truth."
I was amazed. I had always liked George Taylor, but I never felt any strong affection for him. I was a little less indifferent to him than to others in Denboro, that was all. And I had taken it for granted that his liking for me was of the same casual, lukewarm variety. To hear him declare himself in this way was astonishing—he, the dry, keen, Yankee banker.
"But why, George?" I repeated.
"I don't know why; I told you that. It's because I can't help it, I suppose. Or because, as I said, I know you better than any one else."
I sighed. "Nobody knows me here," I said.
"One knows you, Ros. I know you."
"You may think you do, but you don't. You can thank God for your ignorance."
"Maybe I ain't so ignorant."
I looked at him. He was looking me straight in the eye.
"What do you know?" I asked, slowly.
"I know, for one thing, that your name ain't Paine."
I could not answer. I am not certain whether I attempted to speak or move. I do remember that the pressure of his hand on my knee tightened.
"It's all right, Ros," he said, earnestly. "Nobody knows but me, and nobody ever shall know if I can help it."
"How—how much do you know?" I stammered.
"Why, pretty much all, I guess. I've known ever since your mother was taken sick. Some things I read in the paper, and the pictures of—of your father, put me on, and afterwards I got more certain of it. But it's all right. Nobody but me knows or shall know."
I leaned my head on my hand. He patted my knee, gently.
"Are—are you sure no one else knows?" I asked.
"Certain sure. There was one time when it might have all come out. A reporter fellow from one of the Boston papers got on the track somehow and came down here to investigate. Luckily I was the first man he tackled, and I steered him away. I presume likely I lied some, but my conscience is easy so far as that goes."
"And you have told no one? Not even Nellie?"
"No. I tell Nellie most things, but not all—not all."
I remembered afterwards that he sighed as he said this and took his hand from my knee; but then my agitation was too great to do more than casually notice it. I rose to my feet.
"George! George!" I cried. "I—I can't say to you what I should like. But why—WHY did you shield me? And lie for me? Why did you do it? I was hardly more than a stranger."
He sighed. "Don't know," he answered. "I never could quite see why a man's sins should be visited on the widows and fatherless. And, of course, I realized that you and your mother changed your name and came down here to get away from gossip and talk. But I guess the real reason was that I liked you, Ros. Love at first sight, same as we read about; hey?"
He looked up and smiled. I seized his hand.
"George," I said, chokingly, "I did not believe I had a real friend in the world, except Mother and Dorinda and Lute, of course. I can't thank you enough for shielding us all these years; there's no use in my trying. But if ever I can do anything to help YOU—anything—I'll do it. I'll swear to that."
He shook my hand.
"I know you will, Ros," he said. "I told you I knew you."
"If ever I can do anything—"
He interrupted me.
"There's one thing you can do right now," he said. "That's get out and mix. That'll please me as much as anything. And begin right off. Why, see here, the Methodist society is going to give a strawberry festival on the meeting-house lawn next Thursday night. About everybody's going, Nellie and I included. You come, will you?"
I hesitated. I had heard about the festival, but I certainly had not contemplated attending.
"Come!" he urged. "You won't say no to the first favor I ask you. Promise me you'll be on hand."
Before I could answer, we heard the door of Mother's room open. George and I hastened into the dining-room. Doctor Quimby and Nellie Dean were there. Nellie rushed over to her lover's side.
"You bad boy," she cried. "You're wet through."
Doctor Quimby turned to me.
"Your ma's getting on all right," he declared. "About all that ails her now is that she wants to see you."
George was assisting Nellie to put on her wraps.
"Got to leave you now, Ros," he said. "Cap'n Jed and Matildy'll think we've eloped ahead of time. Good-night. Oh, say, will you promise me to take in the strawberry festival?"
"Why" I answered, "I suppose—Yes, Mother, I'm coming—Why, yes, George, I'll promise, to please you."
I have often wondered since what my life story would have been if I had not made that promise.
The Methodist church stood on the slope of a little hill, back from the Main Road, and the parsonage was next door. Between the church and the parsonage was a stretch of lawn, dotted with shrubs and cedars and shaded by two big silver-leaf poplars. It was on this lawn that, provided the night was fair, the strawberry festival was to be held. If the weather should be unpropitious the festival was to be in the church vestry.
All that day Dorinda was busy baking and icing cake. She was not going to the festival—partly because I was going and she could not leave Mother—but principally because such affairs were altogether too frivolous to fit in her scheme of orthodoxy. "I don't recollect," she said, "that the apostles did much strawberry festivalin'; they had other things to attend to." Lute, however, was going and if he had been invited to a Presidential reception he could not have been much more excited. He was dressed and ready at supper time, although the festival did not begin until seven-thirty.
"Think I'm all right, Dorindy, do you?" he queried, anxiously turning himself about for his wife's inspection. "How about these new pants? Fur enough down on my boots, be they?"
Dorinda looked him over with a critical eye. "Um-hm," she observed, "that end of 'em seems to be all right. But I cal'late the upper end ain't been introduced to your vest yet. Anyhow, the two don't seem to be well enough acquainted to associate close."
Lute bent forward to inspect the hiatus between trousers and waistcoat. "By time!" he exclaimed, "I told Sim Eldredge they was too short in the waist. He said if they was any longer they'd wrinkle under the arms. I don't know what to do. If I hist 'em up they'll be what the fellers call high-water, won't them?"
"Humph! I'd ruther have 'em high-water than shoal in the middle of the channel. You'll have to average up somehow. I ought to have known better than to trust you to buy anything all by yourself."
She condescended to approve of my appearance when, an hour later, I came downstairs, garbed in my best.
"Humph!" she vouchsafed, after a long look. "I declare! I'd hardly know you, Roscoe. You look more as you used to when you fust come here to live."
"Thanks," I answered, drily. "I'm glad to see that you respect old age. This suit is venerable enough to command that kind of respect."
"'Tain't the suit, though that's all right enough. It's the way you wear it, I guess. You look BETTER than you used to. You're browned up and broadened out and it's real becomin'. But," she added, with characteristic caution, "you must remember that good looks don't count for much. My father used to say to me that handsome is that handsome does. Not that I was so homely I'd scare the crows, but he didn't want me to be vain. Now don't fall overboard in THAT suit, will you?"
Mother noticed my unwonted grandeur when I went in to say good-night to her.
"Why, Roscoe!" she exclaimed. "You must consider this strawberry festival very important."
"Because you've taken such pains to dress for it."
"It did not require a great deal of pains. I merely put on what Dorinda calls my Sunday clothes. I don't know why I did, either. I certainly don't consider the festival important."
"I am glad you did. I have been a little troubled about you of late, Boy. It has seemed to me that you were growing—well, not careless, exactly, but indifferent. As if you were losing interest in life. I don't blame you. Compelled to waste your time here in the country, a companion to a bedridden old woman like me."
"Hush, Mother. You're not old; and as to wasting my time—why, Mother, you know—"
"Yes, yes, Boy, I know what you would say. But it does trouble me, nevertheless. I ought to bid you go back into the world, and take your place among men. A hundred times I have been upon the point of telling you to leave me, but—but—I am SO selfish."
"Hush, Mother, please."
"Yes, I AM selfish and I know it. I am growing stronger every day; I am sure of it. Just a little longer, Roscoe, just a little longer, and then—"
"There, there!" she stroked my hand. "We won't be sad, will we. It pleases me to see you taking an interest in affairs. I think this Shore Lane matter may be a good thing, after all. Dorinda says that Luther tells her you are becoming very popular in town because of your independent stand. Everyone recognizes your public spirit."
"Did she tell you that?"
"Not in those words. You know Dorinda. But what amounts to that. I am sure the Denboro people are very proud of you."
I thought of my "popularity" and the admiration of my "public spirit" as manifested in the attentions of Captain Jed and Eldredge and their followers, and I turned my head away so that she might not see my face.
"And I am glad you are going to the strawberry festival. I can't remember when you attended such a function before. Boy—"
"There isn't any reason, any special reason, for your going, is there?"
"Why, what do you mean?"
"I mean—well, you are young and I did not know but, perhaps, some one else was going, some one you were interested in, and—and—"
I laughed aloud. "Mother!" I said, reproachfully.
"Why not? I am very proud of my handsome boy, and I know that—"
"There! there! I haven't noticed that my beauty is so fascinating as to be dangerous. No, Mother, there is no 'special reason' for my going to-night. I promised George Taylor, that was all."
"Well, I am sure you will have a good time. Kiss me, Boy. Good-night."
I was by no means so sure of the good time. In fact, I loitered on my way to the village and it was well past eight o'clock when I paid my fifteen cents admission fee to Elnathan Mullet at the gate of the church grounds and sauntered up the slope toward the lights and gaiety of the strawberry festival.
The ladies of the Methodist society, under whose management the affair was given, were fortunate in their choice of an evening. The early risen moon shone from a cloudless sky and there was so little breeze that the Japanese lanterns, hung above the tables, went out only occasionally. The "beauty and elite of Denboro"—see next week's Cape Cod Item—were present in force and, mingling with them, or, if not mingling, at least inspecting them with interest, were some of the early arrivals among the cottagers from South Denboro and Bayport. I saw Lute, proudly conscious of his new lavender trousers, in conversation with Matilda Dean, and I wondered who was the winner in that wordy race. Captain Jedediah strutted arm in arm with the minister. Thoph Newcomb and Alvin Baker were there with their wives. Simeon Eldredge had not yet put in an appearance but I knew that he would as soon as the evening mail was sorted.
I found Nellie Dean in charge of a table, and George Taylor seated at that table. I walked over and joined them.
"Good evening, Nellie," said I. "Well, George, here I am, you see."
He shook my hand heartily. "I see you are," he said. "Good boy! How does it seem to splash into society?"
"I haven't splashed yet. I have only just arrived."
"Oh, trying the feel of the water, hey? Guess you won't find it very chilly. As a preparatory tonic I'd recommend strawberries and cream. Nellie, get Ros a saucer of those genuine home-raised berries, why don't you?"
Nellie laughed. "Roscoe," she said, "isn't he dreadful! He knows we bought these berries in Boston. It's much too early for the native ones. But they really are very nice, though he does make such fun of them."
She went into the vestry to get the berries and I sat down at the table beside Taylor and looked about me.
"Most everybody's here," he observed. "And they'll be glad to see you, Ros. Get out and shake hands and be sociable, after you've done your duty by the fruit. How are things at home?"
"Mother is herself again, I am glad to say. George, I have scarcely thought of anything except what you told me the other night."
"Then it's time you did. That's one reason why I wanted you to come here. You've been thinking too much about yourself."
"It isn't of myself, but of Mother. If you had dropped a hint when that Boston reporter came—"
"Now, look here, Ros, would YOU have dropped hints if things had been the other way around?"
"I don't know."
"I know you wouldn't. What's the use of giving the Denboro gossip mill a chance to run over time? Great heavens! it works twelve hours a day as 'tis."
"It was mighty good of you, just the same."
"No, it wasn't. The whole affair was your business and nobody else's."
"Well, as I said before, if ever I have an opportunity to do as much for you—not that I ever will."
"How do you know you won't? Anybody's liable to be gossiped about some time or other."
"Not you. You are Denboro's shining light. The mothers and fathers here point you out as an example of what industry and ambition and honest effort may rise to. I—"
"Shut up!" He said it almost savagely. "There!" he added, quickly, "let's change the subject. Talk about something worth while. Humph! I guess they must be opening another crate of those Boston 'homegrowns,' judgin' by the time it takes Nellie to get your sample."
"I am in no hurry. How are affairs at the bank?"
"Oh, so, so. Don't know a good man who wants a job, do you? Henry Small's going to leave the middle of next month."
"Small, the bookkeeper? Why?"
"Got a better chance up to the city. I don't blame him. Don't tell anybody yet; it's a secret. Say, Ros, DO you know of a good, sharp, experienced fellow?"
I smiled. "Is it likely?" I asked. "How large is my acquaintance among sharp, experienced fellows down here?"
"Not so large as it ought to be, I'll give in to that. But you know one."
"Do I, indeed? Who is he?"
"Yourself. You wouldn't take Small's job, would you?"
"I?" I laughed aloud.
"It's no joke. You've had a lot of banking experience. I've heard about it among my city friends, who don't know I know you. Course I realize the place is way beneath what you ought to have, but—"
"Oh, don't be sarcastic. No, thank you, George."
"All right, if you say so. But I meant it. You don't need the salary, I know. But—Ros, do you mind if I talk plain for a moment?"
I wondered what was coming now. "No," I answered. "Go ahead and talk."
"Well then, I tell you, as a friend, that 'twould be a good thing for you if you did take that job, or some other one. Don't make much matter what it is, but you ought to do something. You're too clever a fellow to be hanging around, shooting and fishing. You're wasting your life."
"That was wasted long ago."
"No, it wasn't. But it will be if you don't change pretty soon. I tell you you ought to get interested in something that counts. You might make a big name for yourself yet."
"That's enough of that. I have a name already. You know it, and you know what was made of it."
"YOU didn't make it that kind of a name, did you? And you're young enough to make it something altogether different. You ought to. You owe it to your mother and you owe it to yourself. As it is, if you keep on, you'll—"
"George, you've said enough. No one but you would have been permitted to say as much. You don't understand."
"Maybe not, but, Ros, I don't like to have people around here call you—"
"I don't care a continental what they call me. I don't want them to know who I am, but for public opinion generally I care nothing."
He leaned back in his chair. His face was in shadow and I could not see it, but his tone was grave enough.
"You think you don't," he said, slowly, "but there may come a time when you will. There may come a time when you get so interested in something, or some person, that the thought of what folks would say if—if anything went wrong would keep you awake night after night. Oh, I tell you, Ros—Hello, Nellie! thought you'd gone South to pick those berries yourself. Two saucers full! Well, I suppose I must eat the other to save it—unless Ros here wants both."
I said one would be quite sufficient for the present, and we three chatted until Mrs. Dean came over and monopolized the chat.
"Don't go, Roscoe," protested the matron. "The Cap'n's here and he'll want to talk to you. He's dreadful interested in you just now. Don't talk about nobody else, scurcely. You set still and I'll go fetch him."
But I refused to "set." I knew the cause of Captain Jedediah's interest, and what he wished to talk about. I rose and announced that I would stroll about a bit. Taylor spoke to me as I was leaving.
"Ros," he said, earnestly, "you think of what I told you, will you?"
I saw a group of people hurrying toward the entrance of the grounds and I followed them, curious as to the cause of the excitement. An automobile had stopped by the gate. Sim Eldredge came hastening up and seized me by the arm.
"Gosh! it's Ros," he exclaimed, in his mysterious whisper. "I hadn't seen you afore; just got here myself. But I'm glad you ARE here. I'll see that you and him get a chance to talk private."
"Who?" I asked, trying to pull my arm free.
"Why, Mr. Colton. Didn't you know? Yes, sir, that's his car. He's come and so's his daughter and that young Carver feller. I believe they've come to take in the sociable. There they be! See 'em! See 'em!"
I saw them. Colton and Victor had already alighted and Miss Colton was descending from the tonneau. There were two other men in the car, beside Oscar, the chauffeur.
"Who are those other people?" I asked.
"I don't know," whispered Sim, excitedly. "Stay where you be and I'll find out. I'll be right back, now. Don't you move."
I did not move, not because he had ordered me to stay where I was, but because I was curious. The spot where I stood was in shadow and I knew they could not see me.
Colton and his daughter were talking with Victor, who remained by the step of the auto.
"Well, Mabel," observed "Big Jim," "here we are, though why I don't know. I hope you enjoy this thing more than I am likely to."
"Of course I shall enjoy it, Father. Look at the decorations. Aren't they perfectly WONDERFUL!"
"Especially the color scheme," drawled Victor. "Mabel, I call your attention to the red, blue and purple lanterns. Some class? Yes? Well, I must go. I'll be back in a very short time. If Parker wasn't starting for Europe to-morrow I shouldn't think of leaving, but I'm sure you'll forgive me, under the circumstances."
"I forgive you, Victor," replied the girl, carelessly. "But don't be too long."
"No, don't," added her father. "I promised Mrs. Colton that I should not be away more than an hour. She's very nervous to-night and I may be sent for any time. So don't keep us waiting."
"No fear of that. I'll be back long before you are ready to go. I wouldn't miss this—er—affair myself for something. Ah, our combination friend, the undertaking postmaster."
Sim's hat was in his hand and he was greeting Mr. Colton.
"Proud to see you amongst us, sir," said Sim, with unction. "The Methodist folks are havin' quite a time to-night, ain't they?"
"How d'ye do, Eldredge," was the great man's salutation, not at all effusive. "Where does all this crowd come from? Didn't know there were so many people in the neighborhood."
"'Most everybody's out to-night. Church'll make consider'ble money. Good evenin', Miss Colton. Mr. Carver, pleased to meet you again, sir."
The young lady merely nodded. Victor, whose foot was on the step of the car, did not deign to turn.
"Thanks," he drawled. "I am—er—embalmed, I'm sure. All ready, Phil. Let her go, Oscar."
The auto moved off. Mr. Colton gave his arm to his daughter and they moved through the crowd, Eldredge acting as master of ceremonies.
"It's all right, Elnathan," ordered Sim, addressing the gate-keeper. "Don't bother Mr. Colton about the admission now. I'll settle with you, myself, later. Now, Mr. Colton, you and the lady come right along with me. Ain't met the minister yet, have you? He said you wan't to home when he called. And you let me get you some strawberries. They're fust-rate, if I do say it."
He led the way toward the tables. I watched the progress from where I stood. It was interesting to see how the visitors were treated by the different groups. Some, like Sim, were gushing and obsequious. A few, Captain Jed among them, walked stubbornly by, either nodding coldly or paying no attention. Others, like George Taylor and Doctor Quimby, were neither obsequious nor cold, merely bowing pleasantly and saying, "Good evening," as though greeting acquaintances and equals. Yes, there WERE good people in Denboro, quiet, unassuming, self-respecting citizens.
One of them came up to me and spoke.
"Hello, Ros," said Captain Elisha Warren, "Sim's havin' the time of his life, isn't he?"
"He seems to be," I replied.
"Yes. Well, there's some satisfaction in havin' a thick shell; then you don't mind bein' stepped on. Yet, I don't know; sometimes I think fellers of Sim's kind enjoy bein' stepped on, provided the boot that does it is patent leather."
"I wonder why they came here," I mused.
"Who? the Coltons? Why, for the same reason children go to the circus, I shouldn't wonder—to laugh at the clowns. I laugh myself sometimes—though 'tain't always at their kind of clowns. Speakin' of that, young Carver's in good company this evenin', ain't he?"
"Who were those fellows in the auto?" I asked.
"Didn't you recognize them? One was Phil Somers—son of the rich widow who owns the big cottage at Harniss. 'Tother is a bird of the same flock down visitin' em. Carver's takin' 'em over to Ostable to say good-by to another specimen, a college mate, who is migratin' to Europe tomorrow. The chauffeur told Dan, my man, about it this afternoon. The chauffeur figgered that, knowin' the crowd, 'twas likely to be a lively farewell. Hello! there's Abbie hailin' me. See you later, Ros."
I knew young Somers by reputation. He and his friends were a wild set, if report was true.
Eldredge had hinted that he intended arranging an interview between Colton and myself. The prospect did not appeal to me. At first I decided to go home at once, but something akin to Captain Dean's resentful stubbornness came over me. I would not be driven home by those people. I found an unoccupied camp chair—one of Sim's, which he rented for funerals—and carried it to a dark spot in the shrubbery near the border of the parsonage lawn and not far from the gate. There I seated myself, lit a cigar and smoked in solitude.
Elnathan Mullet, evidently considering his labors as door-keeper over, was counting his takings by lantern light. The moon was low in the west and a little breeze was now stirring the shrubbery. It was very warm for the season and I mentally prophesied thunder showers before morning.
I had smoked my cigar perhaps half through when a carriage came down the road and stopped before the gate. The driver leaned forward and called to Mullet.
"Hi, Uncle!" he shouted. "You, by the gate! Is Mr. Colton here?"
Elnathan, who was, apparently, half asleep, looked up.
"Hey?" he queried. "Mr. Colton? Yes, he's here. Want him, do you?"
"Yes. Where is he?"
"Up yonder somewheres. There he is, by Sarah Burgess's table. Mr. Colton! Mr. Col—ton! Somebody wants ye!"
"What in blazes did you yell like that for?" protested the coachman, springing from the carriage. "Stop it, d'ye hear?"
"You said you wanted him, didn't you? Mr. Colton! Hi! Come here!"
Colton came hurrying down to the gate, his daughter following more slowly.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
The coachman touched his hat.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he said; "this man started yelling before I could stop him. I was coming to tell you. Mrs. Colton says she's very nervous, sir, and please come home at once."
Colton turned with a shrug to his daughter. "We might have expected it, Mabel," he said. "Come."
But the young lady seemed to hesitate. "I believe I won't go yet, Father," she said. "Mother doesn't need both of us. Victor will be here very soon, and we promised to wait for him, you know."
"We can leave word. You'd better come, Mabel. Heavens and earth! you don't want any MORE of this, do you?"
It was evident that he had had quite enough of the festival. She laughed lightly.
"I'm finding it very entertaining," she said. "I never saw so many quaint people. There is one girl, a Miss Dean, whom I am really getting acquainted with. She's as country as can be, but she's very interesting."
"Humph! she must be. Dean, hey? Daughter of my particular friend, the ancient mariner, I suppose. I don't like to leave you here. What shall I tell your mother?"
"Tell her I am quite safe and in perfectly respectable company."
"Humph! I can imagine how respectable she'll think it is. Well, I know it's useless to urge if you have made up your mind. I don't see where you get your stubbornness from."
"Don't you? I can guess."
"It isn't from your dad. Now do be careful, won't you? If Victor doesn't come soon I shall send the carriage."
"Oh, he will come. It's all right, Father, dear. I am quite able to take care of myself."
Her father shook his head. "Yes," he observed, "I guess you are. All right, Jenkins."
He got into the carriage and was driven off. Miss Colton turned and walked back to the tables. I relit my cigar.
Another half-hour passed.
Mullet finished his counting, took up his money box and lantern and left the gate unguarded. Groups of home-going people began to come down the hill. Horses, which had been standing under the church sheds or hitched in neighboring yards, appeared and the various buggies and two-seaters to which they were attached were filled and driven away. Captain Warren and Miss Abbie Baker, his housekeeper, were among the first to leave. Abijah Hammond, the sexton, began taking down the lanterns. The strawberry festival was almost over.
I rose from my camp chair and prepared to start for home. As I stepped from behind the shrubbery the moonlight suddenly went out, as if it had been turned off like a gas jet. Except for the few remaining lanterns and the gleams from the church windows and door the darkness was complete. I looked at the western sky. It was black, and low down along the horizon flashes of lightning were playing. My prophecy of showers was to be fulfilled.
The ladies of the Methodist Society, assisted by their husbands and male friends, were hurrying the tables and chairs indoors. I picked up and folded the chair I had been occupying and joined the busy group. It was so dark that faces were almost invisible, but I recognized Sim Eldredge by his voice, and George Taylor and I bumped into each other as we seized the same table.
"Hello, Ros!" exclaimed the cashier. "Thought you'd gone. Going to have a tempest, ain't we."
"Tempest" is Cape Cod for thunderstorm. I agreed that one was imminent.
"Hold on till I get this stuff into the vestry," continued Taylor, "and I'll drive you home. I'll be ready pretty soon."
I declined the invitation. "I'll walk," I answered. "You have Nellie to look after. If you have a spare umbrella I'll borrow that. Where is Nellie?"
"Oh, she's over yonder with Miss Colton. They have been making each other's acquaintance. Say, Ros, she's a good deal of a girl, that Colton one, did you know it?"
I did not answer.
"Oh, I know you're down on the whole lot of 'em," he added, laughing; "but she is, just the same. Kind of top-lofty and condescending, but that's the fault of her bringing-up. She's all right underneath. Too good for that Carver cub. By the way, if he doesn't come pretty soon I'll phone her pa to send the carriage for her. If I was Colton I wouldn't put much confidence in Carver's showing up in a hurry. You saw the gang he was with, didn't you? They don't get home till morning, till daylight doth appear, as a usual thing. Hello! that's the carriage now, ain't it? Guess papa wasn't taking any chances."
Sure enough, there were the lights of a carriage at the gate, and I heard the voice of Jenkins, the coachman, shouting. Nellie Dean called Taylor's name and he hurried away. A few moments later he returned.
"She's off, safe and sound," he said. "I judged she wasn't any too well pleased with her Victor for not showing up to look out for her."
A sharp flash of lightning cut the sky and a rattling peal of thunder followed.
"Right on top of us, ain't it!" exclaimed George. "Sure you don't want me to drive you home? All right; just as you say. Hold on till I get you that umbrella."
He borrowed an umbrella from the parsonage. I took it, thanked him, and hastened out of the church grounds. I looked up the road as I passed through the gate. I could have seen an auto's lamps for a long distance, but there were none in sight. With a malicious chuckle I thought that my particular friend Victor was not taking the surest way of making himself popular with his fiancee, if that was what she was.
The storm overtook me before I was half-way down the Lower Road. A few drops of rain splashed the leaves. A lightning stroke so near and sharp that I fancied I could hear the hiss was accompanied by a savage thunder-clap. Then came the roar of wind in the trees by the roadside and down came the rain. I put up my umbrella and began to run. We have few "tempests" in Denboro, those we do have are almost worthy of the name.
I had reached the grove of birches perhaps two hundred yards from the Shore Lane when out of the wet darkness before me came plunging a horse drawing a covered carriage. I had sprung to one side to let it go by when I heard a man's voice shouting, "Whoa!" The voice did not come from the carriage but from the road behind it.
"Whoa! Stop him!" it shouted.
I jumped back into the road. The horse saw me appear directly in front of him, shied and reared. The carriage lamps were lighted and by their light I saw the reins dragging. I seized them and held on. It was all involuntary. I was used to horses and this one was frightened, that was all.
"Whoa, boy!" I ordered. "Whoa! Stand still!"
The horse had no intention of standing still.
He continued to rear and plunge. I, clinging to the reins, found myself running alongside. I had to run to avoid the wheels. But I ran as slowly as I could, and my one hundred and ninety pounds made running, on the animal's part, a much less easy exercise.
The voice from the rear continued to shout and, in another moment, a man seized the reins beside me. Together we managed to pull the horse into a walk. Then the man, whom I recognized as the Colton coachman, vented his feelings in a comprehensive burst of profanity. I interrupted the service.
"What is the matter?" I asked.
"Oh, this blessed"—or words to that effect—"horse is scared of thunder; that's all. He's a new one; we just bought him before we came down here and I hadn't learned his little tricks. Whoa! stand still, or I'll break your dumb neck! Say," turning to me, "go back, will you, and see if she's all right."
"Miss Colton—the old man's daughter. She got out when he began to dance and I was holding him by the bridle. Then came that big flash and he broke loose. Go back and see to her, will you? I can't leave this horse."
For just a moment I hesitated. I am ashamed of my hesitation now, but this is supposed to be a truthful chronicle. Then I went back down the road. By another flash of lightning I saw the minister's umbrella upside down in the bushes where I had dropped it, and I took it with me. I was about as wet as I well could be but I am glad to say I remembered that the umbrella was a borrowed one.
After I had walked, or stumbled, or waded a little way I stopped and called.
"Miss Colton," I called. "Where are you?"
"Here," came the answer from just ahead. "Is that you, Jenkins?"
I did not reply until I reached her side.
"You are not hurt?" I asked.
"No, not at all. But who is it?"
"I am—er—your neighbor. Paine is my name."
"Oh!" the tone was not enthusiastic. "Where is Jenkins?"
"He is attending to the horse. Pardon me, Miss Colton, but won't you take this umbrella?"
This seemed to strike her as a trifle absurd. "Why, thank you," she said, "but I am afraid an umbrella would be useless in this storm. Is the horse all right?"
"Yes, though he is very much frightened. I—"
I was interrupted by another flash and terrific report from directly overhead. The young lady came closer to me.
"Oh!" she exclaimed.
I had an idea. The flash had made our surroundings as light as day for an instant and across the road I saw Sylvanus Snow's old house, untenanted, abandoned and falling to decay. I took Miss Colton's arm.
"Come!" I said.
She hung back. "Where are you going?" she asked.
"Just across the road to that old house. On the porch we shall be out of the rain."
She made no further objections and together we stumbled through the wet grass and over Sylvanus's weed-grown flower beds. I presume I shall never again smell the spicy fragrance of "old maids' pinks" without thinking of that night.
I found the edge of the piazza by the direct process of barking my shins against it, and helped her up on to the creaking boards. My sanguine statement that we should be out of the rain proved not quite true. There was a roof above us, but it leaked. I unfurled the wet umbrella and held it over her head.
For some moments after we reached the piazza neither of us spoke. The roar of the rain on the shingles of the porch and the splash and gurgle all about us would have made conversation difficult, even if we had wished to talk. I, for one, did not. At last she said:
"Do you see or hear anything of Jenkins?"
I listened, or tried to. I was wondering myself what had become of the coachman.
"No," I answered, "I don't hear him."
"Where do you suppose he is? He could not have been far away when you met him."
"He was not. And I know he intended to come back at once."
"You don't suppose Caesar—the horse—ran away again? When that second crack came?"
I was wondering that very thing. That particular thunder clap was louder and more terrifying than those preceding it. However, there was no use in alarming her.
"I guess not," I answered. "He'll be here soon, I am sure."
But he did not come. The storm seemed to be passing over. The flashes were just as frequent, but there was a longer interval between each flash and its thunder peal. The rain was still a steady downpour.
Miss Colton was plainly growing more anxious.
"Where can he be?" she murmured.
"Don't be frightened," I urged. "He is all right. I'll go and look him up, if you don't mind being left alone."
"Can't—can't we go together?"
"We could, of course, but there is no use in your getting wetter than you are. If you are willing to stay here I will run up the road and see if I can find him."
"Thank you. But you will get wet yourself."
"Oh, I am wet already. Take the umbrella. I'll be back in a minute."
I pressed the handle of the umbrella into her hand—it was as steady as mine—and darted out into the flood. I think she called me to come back, but I did not obey. I ran up the road until I was some distance beyond the point where I had stopped the runaway, but there were no signs of horse, carriage or coachman. I called repeatedly, but got no reply. Then, reluctantly, I gave it up and returned to the porch.
She gave a little gasp of relief when I reached her side.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, "did you find him?"
"No," I answered. "He seems to have gone on. He cannot have gone far. It is only a little way to the Corners."
"Is—isn't there a house, a house with people living in it, near this place?"
"No nearer than your house, Miss Colton. We seem to have chosen the most forsaken spot in Denboro to be cast away in. I am very sorry."
"I am not frightened for myself. But I know my father and mother will be alarmed if I don't come soon. I am sure Caesar must have run away again, and I am afraid Jenkins must be hurt."
I had thought of that, too. Only an accident could explain the coachman's non-appearance or, at least, his not sending help to his mistress.
"If you are really not afraid to remain here, Miss Colton," I said, "I will go to your house myself."
"Oh no! Some one will come soon. I can't understand where Victor—Mr. Carver—can be. He was to have joined me at the church."
I did not answer. Knowing Mr. Carver's associates and the errand upon which he had gone, I imagined I could guess the cause of his delay. But I did not speak my guess.
"The storm is not as severe just now," I said. "I can get to your house in a little while, if you are willing I should leave you."
She put her hand on my arm. "Come," she said. "Shall we start now?"
"But you must not go. You couldn't get there on foot, such a night as this."
"Yes, I can. I mean to. Please come."
I still hesitated. She took her hand from my arm and stepped out into the rain. "Are you coming?" she said.
I joined her, still protesting. We splashed on through the mud and water, she clinging lightly to my arm and I holding the perfectly useless umbrella over her head. The rain was descending steadily and the sky overhead was just black, but along the western horizon, as I caught a glimpse of it between the trees, I fancied the blackness was a little less opaque. The storm was passing over, sure enough.
But before it passed it gave us one goodby salute. We had about reached the point on the Shore Lane where I first met her and Carver in the auto. The shaky bridge over Mullet's cranberry brook was just ahead. Then, without warning, the black night split wide open, a jagged streak of fire shot from heaven to earth and seemed to explode almost in our faces. I was almost knocked off my feet and my fingers tingled as if I had been holding the handles of an electric battery. The umbrella flew out of my hands and, so far as I was concerned, vanished utterly. I believe Elnathan picked up the ruin next day, but just then I neither knew nor cared what had become of it. I had other things to think of.
But for a moment I could not think at all. I was conscious of a great crashing and rustling and splintering directly in front of me and then I realized that the young lady was no longer clinging to my arm. I looked about and up through the darkness. Then down. She was lying at my feet.
I bent over her.
"Miss Colton!" I cried. "Miss Colton! Are you hurt?"
She neither answered nor moved. My brain was still numb from the electric shock and I had a dazed fear that she might be dead. I shook her gently and she moaned. I spoke again and again, but she did not answer, nor try to rise. The rain was pouring down upon us and I knew she must not lie there. So once more, just as I had done in the dingy, but now under quite different circumstances and with entirely different feelings, I stooped and lifted her in my arms.
My years of outdoor life in Denboro had had one good effect at least; they had made me strong. I carried her with little effort to the bridge. And there I stopped. The bridge was blocked, covered with a mass of wet leafy branches and splintered wood. The lightning bolt had missed us by just that much. It had overthrown and demolished the big willow tree by the brook and to get through or over the tangle was impossible.
So again history repeated itself. I descended the bank at the side of the bridge and waded through the waters with Mabel Colton in my arms. I staggered up the opposite bank and hurried on. She lay quiet, her head against my shoulder. Her hat had fallen off and a wet, fragrant strand of her hair brushed my cheek. Once I stopped and bent my head to listen, to make sure that she was breathing. She was, I felt her breath upon my face. Afterwards I remembered all this; just then I was merely thankful that she was alive.
I had gone but a little way further when she stirred in my arms and spoke.
"What is it?" she asked. "What is the matter?"
"Nothing," I answered, with a sigh of relief. "It is all right. We shall be there soon."
"But what is the matter? Why are you—let me walk, please."
"You had better stay as you are. You are almost home."
"But why are you carrying me? What is the matter?"
"You—you fainted, I think. The lightning—"
"Oh yes, I remember. Did I faint? How ridiculous! Please let me walk now. I am all right. Really I am."
"But I think—"
"Please. I insist."
I set her gently on her feet. She staggered a little, but she was plucky and, after a moment, was able to stand and walk, though slowly.
"You are sure you can manage it?" I asked.
"Of course! But why did I faint? I never did such a thing before in my life."
"That flash was close to us. It struck the big willow by the brook."
"Did it! As near as that?"
"Yes. Don't try to talk."
"But I am all right . . . I am not hurt at all. Are we almost home?"
"Yes. Those are the lights of your house ahead there."
We moved on more rapidly. As we turned in at the Colton walk she said, "Why; it has stopped raining."
It had, though I had not noticed it. The flash which smashed the willow had been the accompaniment of what Lute would call the "clearing-up shower." The storm was really over.
We stepped up on the portico of the big house and I rang the bell. The butler opened the door. His face, as he saw the pair of dripping, bedraggled outcasts before him, was worth looking at. He was shocked out of his dignity.
"Why! Why, Miss Mabel!" he stammered, with almost human agitation. "What—"
A voice, a petulant female voice, called from the head of the stairs.
"Johnson," it quavered, "who is it? Mabel, is that you?"
The library door flew open and Mr. Colton himself appeared.
"Eh? What?" he exclaimed. "By George! Mabel, where have you been? I have been raising heaven and earth to locate you. The 'phone seems to be out of order and—Great Scott, girl! you're wet through. Jenkins, what—? Hey? Why, it isn't Jenkins!"
The fact that his daughter's escort was not the coachman had just dawned upon him. He stared at me in irate bewilderment. Before he could ask a question or his daughter could speak or explain there came a little shriek from the stairs, a rustle of silken skirts, and a plump, white-faced woman in an elaborate house gown rushed across the hall with both white arms outstretched.
"Mabel!" she cried, "where HAVE you been. You poor child! I have been almost beside myself, and—"
Miss Colton laughingly avoided the rush. "Take care, Mother," she warned. "I am very wet."
"Wet? Why! you're absolutely drenched! Jenkins—Mabel, where is Jenkins? And who is this—er—person?"
I thought it quite time for me to withdraw.
"Good night, Miss Colton," I said, and stepped toward the door. But "Big Jim" roared my name.
"It's that—it's Paine!" he exclaimed. "Here! what does this mean, anyway?"
I think his daughter was about to explain, when there came another interruption. From the driveway sounded the blare of an auto horn. Johnson threw open the door just as the big car whirled up to the porch.
"Here we are!" laughed Carver, emerging from behind the drawn curtains of the machine. "Home again from a foreign shore. Come in, fellows, and have a drink. We've had water enough for one night. Come in."
He stumbled as he crossed the sill, recovered his balance, laughed, and then all at once seemed to become aware of the group in the hall. He looked about him, swaying a little as he did so.
"Ah, Mabel!" he exclaimed, genially. "Got here first, didn't you? Sorry I was late, but it was all old Parker's fault. Wouldn't let us say goodby. But we came some when we did come. The bridge is down and we made Oscar run her right through the water. Great ex-experience. Hello! Why, what's matter? Who's this? What? it's Reuben, isn't it! Mabel, what on earth—"
She paid no attention to him. I was at the door when she overtook me.
"Mr. Paine," she said, "I am very grateful for your kindness. Both for what you have done tonight and for your help the other afternoon. Thank you."
She held out her hand. I took it, scarcely knowing that I did so.
"Thank you," she said, again. I murmured something or other and went out. As I stepped from the porch I heard Victor's voice.
"Well, by Jove!" he exclaimed. "Mabel!"
I looked back. He was standing by the door. She went past him without replying or even looking at him. From the automobile I heard smothered chuckles and exclamations. The butler closed the door.
I walked home as fast as I could. Dorinda was waiting up for me. What she said when she saw the ruin of my Sunday suit had better not be repeated. She was still saying it when I took my lamp and went up to bed.
The strawberry festival and the "tempest" were, of course, the subjects most discussed at the breakfast table next morning. Lute monopolized the conversation, a fact for which I was thankful, for it enabled me to dodge Dorinda's questions as to my own adventures. I did not care to talk about the latter. My feelings concerning them were curiously mixed. Was I glad or sorry that Fate had chosen me to play once more the role of rescuer of a young female in distress? That my playing of the role had altered my standing in Mabel Colton's mind I felt reasonably sure. Her words at parting with me rang true. She was grateful, and she had shaken hands with me. Doubtless she would tell her father the whole story and he, too, in common decency, would be grateful to me for helping his daughter. But, after all, did I care for gratitude from that family? And what form would that gratitude take? Would Colton, like Victor Carver, offer to pay me for my services? No, hardly that, I thought. He was a man of wide experience and, if he did offer payment, it would be in some less crude form than a five dollar bill.
But I did not want payment in any form. I did not want condescension and patronizing thanks. I did not want anything—that was it. Up to now, the occupants of the big house and I had been enemies, open and confessed. I had, so far as possible, kept out of their way and hoped they would keep out of mine. But now the situation was more complicated. I did not know what to expect. Of course there was no chance of our becoming friends. The difference in social position, as they reckoned it, made that too ridiculous to consider as a possibility, even if I wished it, which I distinctly did not. But something, an interview, awkward and disagreeable for both sides, or a patronizing note of thanks, was, at the very least, certain to follow the happenings of the previous night. I wished I had gone home when the Coltons first came to the festival. I wished I had not promised Taylor that I would attend that festival. I wished—I wished a great many things. The thought of young Carver's public snubbing before his friends was my one unmixed satisfaction. I rather imagined that he was more uncomfortable than I was or could be.
Lute crowed vaingloriously over his own good judgment in leaving for home early.
"I don't know how 'twas," he declared. "Somethin' seemed to tell me we was in for a turrible tempest. I was settin' talkin' with Alvin Baker and eatin' my second sasser of berries, when—"
"SECOND sasser?" interrupted Dorinda, sharply. "Where'd you get money for two sassers? I gave you thirty cents when you started for that festival. It cost you fifteen to get inside the gate, and Matildy Dean told me the church folks was cal'latin' to charge fifteen for a helpin' of berries and cream. And you had two sassers, you say. Who paid for the second one?"
Her husband swallowed half a cup of coffee before replying. Then his reply had nothing to do with the question.
"I don't know how 'twas," he went on. "I just had the feelin', that's all. Sort of a present—presentuary, I guess, come over me. I looked up at the sky and 'twas gettin' black, and then I looked to the west-ard and I see a flash of lightnin'. 'Nothin' but heat lightnin',' says Alvin. 'Heat lightnin' nothin'!' says I, 'I tell you—"
"Who paid for that second sasser of berries?" repeated his wife, relentlessly.
"Why now, Dorindy—"
"Who paid for 'em? If 'twas Alvin Baker you ought to be ashamed of yourself, spongin' on him for your vittles."
"Alvin! Good land! did you ever know him to pay for anything he didn't have to?"
"Never mind what I know. Did you get trusted for 'em? How many times have I told you—"
"I never got trusted. I ain't that kind. And I didn't sponge 'em, neither. I paid cash, right out of my own pocket, like a man."
"You did! Um-hm. I want to know! Well then—MAN, where did the cash in that pocket come from?"
Lute squirmed. "I—I—" he stammered.
"Where did it come from? Answer me."
"Well—well, Dorindy, you see—when you sent me up to the store t'other day after the brown sugar and—and number 50 spool cotton you give me seventy-five cents. You remember you did, yourself."
"Yes, and I remember you said there was a hole in your pocket and you lost the change. I ain't likely to forget it, and I shouldn't think you'd be."
"I didn't forget. By time! my ears ain't done singin' yet. But that shows how reckless you talk to me. I never lost that change at all. I found it afterwards in my vest, so all your jawin' was just for nothin'. Ros, she ought to beg my pardon, hadn't she? Hadn't she now?"
Dorinda saved me the trouble of answering.
"Um-hm!" she observed, dryly. "Well, I'll beg my own pardon instead, for bein' so dumb as not to go through your vest myself. So THAT'S where the other fifteen cents come from! I see. Well, you march out to the woodpile and chop till I tell you to quit."
"But, Dorindy, I've got one of my dyspepsy spells. I don't feel real good this mornin'. I told you I didn't."
"Folks that make pigs of themselves on stolen berries hadn't ought to feel good. Exercise is fine for dyspepsy. You march."
Lute marched, and I marched with him as far as the back yard. There I left him, groaning before the woodpile, and went down to the boat house.
The Comfort's overhauling was complete and I had launched her the week before. Now she lay anchored at the edge of the channel. For the want of something more important to do I took down my shot gun and began to polish its already glittering barrels.
Try as I might I could not get the memory of my adventure in the "tempest" out of my head. I reviewed it from end to end, thinking of many things I might have done which, in the light of what followed, would have been better and more sensible. If, instead of leaving the coachman, I had remained to help him with the frightened horse, I should have been better employed. Between us we could have subdued the animal and Miss Colton might have ridden home. I wondered what had become of Jenkins and the horse. I wondered if the girl knew I carried her through the brook. Victor had said the bridge was down; she must know. I wondered what she thought of the proceeding; probably that splashing about with young ladies in my arms was a habit of mine.
I told myself that I did not care what she thought. I resolved to forget the whole affair and to focus my attention upon cleaning the gun. But I could not forget. I waded that brook a dozen times as I sat there. I remembered every detail; how still she lay in my arms; how white her face looked as the distant lightning flashes revealed it to me; how her hair brushed my cheek as I bent over her. I was using a wad of cotton waste to polish the gun barrel, and I threw it into a corner, having the insane notion that, in some way, the association of ideas came from that bunch of waste. It—the waste—was grimy and anything but fragrant, as different from the dark lock which the wind had blown against my face as anything well could be, but the hurry with which I discarded it proves my imbecility at that time. Confound the girl! she was a nuisance. I wanted to forget her and her family, and the sulphurous personage to whose care I had once consigned the head of the family apparently took a characteristic delight in arranging matters so that I could not.
The shot gun was, at last, so spotless that even a pretense of further cleaning was ridiculous. I held it level with my eye and squinted through the barrels.
"Don't shoot," said a voice from the doorway; "I'll come down."
I lowered the gun, turned and looked. "Big Jim" Colton was standing there, cigar in mouth, cap on the back of his head and both hands in his pockets, exactly as he had appeared in that same doorway when he and I first met. The expected had happened, part of it at least. He had come to see me; the disagreeable interview I had foreseen was at hand.
He nodded and entered without waiting for an invitation.
"Morning," he said.
"Good morning," said I, guardedly. I wondered how he would begin the conversation. Our previous meeting had ended almost in a fight. We had been fighting by proxy ever since. I was prepared for more trouble, for haughty condescension, for perfunctory apology, for almost anything except what happened. His next remark might have been addressed to an acquaintance upon whom he had casually dropped in for a friendly call.
"That's a good looking gun you've got there," he observed. "Let's see it."
I was too astonished to answer. "Let's look at it," he repeated, holding out his hand.
Mechanically I passed him the gun. He examined it as if he was used to such things, broke it, snapped it shut, tried the locks with his thumb and handed it back to me.
"Anything worth shooting around here?" he asked, pulling the armchair toward him and sitting.
I think I did not let him see how astonished I was at his attitude. I tried not to.
"Why yes," I answered, "in the season. Plenty of coots, some black duck, and quail and partridge in the woods."
"That so! Peters, that carpenter of mine, said something of the sort, I remember, but I wouldn't believe him under oath. I could shoot HIM with more or less pleasure, but there seems to be no open session for his species. Where's your launch?"
"Out yonder." I pointed to the Comfort at her moorings. He looked, but made no comment. I rose and put the gun in the rack. Then I returned to my chair. He swung around in his seat and looked at me.
"Well," he said, grimly, but with a twinkle in his eye, "the last time you and I chatted together you told me to go to the devil."
This was quite true and I might have added that I was glad of it. But what would be the use? I did not answer at all.
"I haven't gone there yet," he continued. "Came over here instead. Got dry yet?"
"Yes. You were anything but dry when I saw you last night. Have many such cloudbursts as that in these parts?"
"Not many. No."
"I hope not. I don't want another until I sell that horse of mine. The chap who stuck me with him is a friend of mine. He warranted the beast perfectly safe for an infant in arms to drive and not afraid of anything short of an earthquake. He is a lovely liar. I admire his qualifications in that respect, and hope to trade with him again. He bucks the stock market occasionally."
He smiled as he said it. There was not the slightest malice in his tone, but, if I had been the "friend," I should have kept clear of stocks for awhile.
"What became of the horse?" I asked.
"Ran away again. Jenkins had just got back into the carriage when another one of those thunder claps started more trouble. The horse ran four miles, more or less, and stopped only when the wheels got jammed between two trees. I paid nine hundred dollars for that carriage."
"And the coachman?"
"Oh, he lit on his head, fortunately, and wasn't hurt. Spent half the night trying to find a phone not out of commission but failed. Got home about four o'clock, leading the horse. Paine—"
"Of course you know what I've come here for. I'm much obliged to you."
"That's all right. You're welcome."
"Maybe I am, but I am obliged, just the same. Not only for the help you gave Mabel—my daughter—last night, but for that business in the bay the other afternoon."
So she had told him the whole story. Remembering her last words, as I left her in the hall, I had rather imagined she would.
"That didn't amount to anything," I said, shortly.
"Why, yes, it did. It might have amounted to a whole lot. I asked Peters some questions about the tides out here and, from what he said, I judge that being stuck on the shoals in a squall might not be altogether a joke. Mabel says you handled the affair mighty well."
I did not answer. He chuckled.
"How did young Carver enjoy playing second fiddle?" he asked. "From what I've seen of him he generally expects to lead the band. Happy, was he?"
I remained silent. He smiled broadly.
"He isn't any too happy this morning," he went on. "That young man won't do. I never quoted him within twenty points of par, but Mabel seemed to like him and her mother thought he was the real thing. Mrs. C. couldn't forget that his family is one of the oldest on the list. Personally I don't gamble much on families; know a little about my own and that little is enough. But women are different. However, family or not, he won't do. I should tell him so myself, but I guess Mabel will save me the trouble. She's got a surprising amount of common-sense, considering that she's an only child—and who her parents are. By the way, Paine, what did Carver say when you put him ashore?"
"He—he said—oh, nothing of importance."
"Yes, I know that. I listened to his explanations last night. But did he say anything?"
"Why, he offered to pay me for my work."
"Did he? How much?"
"I did not wait to find out."
"And you haven't heard from him since?"
"Have you?" he repeated.
"Well, I—I received a note from him next day."
"Humph! Offering apologies?"
"Sent you money, didn't he?"
I looked at him in surprise. "Did he tell you?" I asked.
"No, nobody told me. I'm only trying to find out whether or not I have lost all my judgment of human nature since I struck this sand heap. He did send you money then. How much?"
"Mr. Colton, I—"
"Come now! How much?"
"Well—he sent me five dollars."
"No! he didn't!"
"I am telling you the truth."
"Yes," slowly, "I know you are. I've got that much judgment left. Sent you five dollars, did he. And you sent it back."
"Any message with it?"
I was tired of being catechized. I had not meant to tell him anything. Now I decided to tell him all. If it angered him, so much the better.
"I sent him word that what I saved wasn't worth the money."
To my amazement he was not angry. Instead he slapped his knee and laughed aloud.
"Ho! ho!" he shouted. "Humph! Well, that was. . . . I'd like to have seen his face when he got that message. No, that young man won't do. He won't do at all."
It was not for me to dispute this conclusion, even if I had disagreed with him, which I did not. I said nothing. He rubbed his knee for a moment and then changed the subject.
"How did you happen to be on the Lower Road at that time of the night?" he asked. "I'm mighty glad you were there, of course, but where did you come from?"
"I left the festival rather late and—"
"Festival? Oh, that thing up at the church. I didn't see you there."
I had taken pains that he should not see me.
"Do you mean to tell me," he continued, "that you enjoy a thing like that? What in blazes made Mabel want to go I don't see! She and Carver were set on going; and it would be the treat of a lifetime, or words to that effect. I can't see it myself. Of all the wooden headed jays I ever laid eyes on this town holds the finest collection. Narrow and stubborn and blind to their own interests!"
This was more like what I expected from him and I resented it. It may seem odd that I, of all persons, should have taken upon myself the defense of Denboro and its inhabitants, but that is what I did.
"They are no more narrow and stubborn in their way than city people are in theirs," I declared. "They resent being ordered about as if their opinions and wishes counted for nothing, and I honor them for it."
"Yes, I do. Mr. Colton, I tell you that you are all wrong. Simply because a man lives in the country it does not follow that he is a blockhead. No one in Denboro is rich, as you would count riches, but plenty of them are independent and ask no help from any one. You can't drive them."
"No, you can't. And if you want favors from men here you must ask for them, not try to bully."
"I don't want favors. I want to be treated decently, that's all. When I came here I intended doing things to help the town. I should have enjoyed doing it. I told some of them so. Look at the money I've spent. Look at the taxes I'll pay. Why, they ought to be glad to have me here. They ought to welcome me."
"So they would if you had not behaved as if you were what some of them call you—'Emperor of New York'. I tell you, Mr. Colton, you're all wrong. I know the people here."
"So? Well, from what I've been able to learn about you, you haven't associated with many of them. You've been playing a little at the high and mighty yourself."
Chickens do come home to roost. My attitude of indifference and coldness toward my fellow citizens had been misinterpreted, as it deserved to be. George Taylor was right when he said I had made a mistake.
"I have been foolish," I said, hotly, "but not for the reason you suppose. I don't consider myself any better than the people here—no, nor even the equal of some of them. And, from what I have seen of you, Mr. Colton, I don't consider you that, either."
Even this did not make him angry. He looked at me as if I puzzled him.
"Say, Paine," he said, "what in the world are you doing down in a place like this?"
"What do you mean?"
"Just that. You upset my calculations. I thought I spotted you and put you in the class where you belonged when you and I first met. I can usually size up a man. You've got me guessing. What are you doing down here? You're no Rube."
If he intended this as a compliment I was not in the mood to accept it as such. I should have told him that what I was or was not was no business of his. But he went on without giving me the opportunity.
"You've got me guessing," he repeated. "You talk like a man. The way you looked out for my daughter last night and the way, according to her story, you handled her and Victor the other afternoon was a man's job. Why are you wasting your life down here?"
"Mr. Colton, I don't consider—"
"Never mind. You're right; that's your affair, of course. But I hate to quit till I have the answer, and nobody around here seems to have the answer to you. Ready to sell me that land yet?"
"Going to sell to the public-spirited bunch? Dean and the rest?"
"You mean that? All right—all right. Say, Paine, I admire your nerve a good deal more than I do your judgment. You must understand that I am going to close that fool Lane of yours some time or other."
"Your understanding and mine differ on that point."
"Possibly, but they'll agree before I'm through. I am going to close that Lane."
"I think not."
"I'm going to close it for two reasons. First, because it's a condemned nuisance and ought to be closed. Second, because I make it a point to get what I go after. I can't afford not to. It is doing that very thing that has put me where I am."
There was nothing to be said in answer to a statement like that. I did not try to answer it.
"Where you're holding down a job like mine," he continued, crossing his knees and looking out across the bay, "you have to get what you go after. I'm down here and I mean to stay here as long as I want to, but I haven't let go of my job by a good deal. I've got private wires—telegraph and telephone—in my house and I keep in touch with things in the Street as much as I ever did. If anybody tries to get ahead of the old man because they think he's turned farmer they'll find out their mistake in a hurry."
This seemed to be a soliloquy. I could not see how it applied to me. He went on talking.
"Sounds like bragging, doesn't it?" he said, reading my thoughts as if I had spoken them. "It isn't. I'm just trying to show you why I can't afford not to have my own way. If I miss a trick, big or little, somebody else wins. When I was younger, just butting into the game, there was another fellow trying to get hold of a lead mine out West that I was after. He beat me to it at first. He was a big toad in the puddle and I was a little one. But I didn't quit. I waited round the corner. By and by I saw my chance. He was in a hole and I had the cover to the hole. Before I let him out I owned that mine. It cost me more than it was worth; I lost money on it. But I had my way and he and the rest had found out that I intended to have it. That was worth a lot more than I lost in the mine. Now this Lane proposition is a little bit of a thing; it's picayune; I should live right along if I didn't get it. But because I want it, because I've made up my mind to have it, I'm going to have it, one way or another. See?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "This seems to me like wasting time, Mr. Colton," I said.
"Then your seeing is away off. Look here, Paine, I'm through fiddling with the deal. I'm through with that undertaker postmaster or any other go-between. I just wanted you to understand my position; that's why I've told you all this. Now we'll talk figures. I might go on bidding, and you'd go on saying no, of course. But I shan't bid. I'll just say this: When you are ready to sell—and I'll put you where you will be some day—"
I rose. "Mr. Colton," I said, sharply, "you had better not say any more. I'm not afraid of you, and—"
"There! there! there! who said anything about your being afraid? Don't get mad. I'm not—not now. This is a business matter between friends and—"
"Sure. Business friends. I'm talking to you as I would to any other chap I intended to beat in a deal; there's nothing personal about it. When I get you so you're ready to sell I'll give you five thousand dollars for that strip of land."
I actually staggered. I said what Lute had said to me.
"You're crazy!" I cried. "Five thousand dollars for that land!"
"Yes. Oh, I know what it's worth. Five hundred is for the land itself. The other forty-five hundred is payment for the privilege of having my own way. Want to close with me now?"
It took me some time to answer. "No," is a short and simple word, but I found it tremendously difficult to pronounce. Yet I did pronounce it, I am glad to say. After all that I had said before I would have been ashamed to do anything else.
He did not appear surprised at my refusal.
"All right," he said. "I'm not going to coax you. Just remember that the offer holds good and when you get ready to accept it, sing out. Well!" looking at his watch, "I must be going. My wife will think I've fallen into the bay, or been murdered by the hostile natives. Nerves are mean things to have in the house; you can take my word for that. Good-by, Paine. Thank you again for last night and the rest of it. Mabel will thank you herself when she sees you, I presume."
He was on his way to the door when I recovered presence of mind sufficient to remember ordinary politeness.
"Your daughter—er—Miss Colton is well?" I stammered. "No ill effects from her wetting—and the shock?"
"Not a bit. She's one of the kind of girls they turn out nowadays. Athletics and all that. Her grandmother would have died probably, after such an upset, but she's as right as I am. Oh . . . er—Paine, next time you go shooting let me know. Maybe I'd like to go along. I used to be able to hit a barn door occasionally."
He stopped long enough to bite the end from a cigar and strolled away, smoking. I sat down in the armchair. "Five thousand dollars!" . . . "Carver won't do." . . . "I will have the Lane some time or other." . . . "Five thousand dollars!" . . . "Next time you go shooting." . . . "Friends!" . . . "Five thousand dollars!"
Oh, this was a nightmare! I must wake up before it got any worse.
Mother was the only one to whom I told the whole story of my experience in the "tempest" and of Colton's call. She and I had a long talk. She was as surprised to hear of the five thousand dollar offer as I had been, but that I had refused it did not surprise her. She seemed to take my refusal as a matter of course, whereas I was more and more doubtful of my sanity at the time. I knew well enough what the opinion of others would be concerning that sanity and I wondered whether or not they might be right. In fact, I rather resented her calm certainty.
"Mother," said I, "you speak as if the offer had been five cents instead of five thousand dollars."
"What difference does it make, Boy?" she asked. "If it had been only a matter of price you would have sold for six hundred and fifty. That is a good deal more than the land is worth, isn't it."
"I suppose so. But five thousand is a small fortune to us. I am not sure that we have the right to refuse it."
"Roscoe, if you were alone in this matter—if I were not here to be considered at all—would you have sold the land, no matter what he offered?"
"I don't know, Mother. I think, perhaps, I should."
"I know you would not. And I know the only reason you feel the refusal may be wrong is because you are thinking what the money might do for me. Do you suppose I will permit you to sacrifice a principle you know is right simply that I may have a few more luxuries which I don't need?"
"But you do need them. Why, there are so many things you need."
"No, I don't need one. So long as I have you I am perfectly happy. And it would not make me more happy to know that you accepted a bribe—that is what it is, a bribe—because of me. No, Boy, you did exactly right and I am proud of you."
"I am not particularly proud of myself."
"You should be. Can't you see how differently Mr. Colton regards you already? He does not condescend or patronize now."
"Humph! he is grateful because I helped his daughter out of a scrape, that's all."
"It is more than that. He respects you because you are what he called you, a man. I fancy it is a new experience to him to find some one, down here at any rate, to whom his millions make absolutely no difference."
"I am glad of it. It may do him good."
"Yes, I think it will. And what you told him about the townspeople may do him good, too. He will find, as you and I have found, that there are no kinder, better people anywhere. You remember I warned you against misjudging the Coltons, Roscoe. They, too, I am sure, are good people at heart, in spite of their wealth."
"Mother, you are too charitable for this earth—too unworldly altogether."
"Haven't you and I reason to be charitable? There! there! let us forget the land and the money. Roscoe, I should like to meet this Miss Colton. She must be a brave girl."
"She is brave enough."
"I suppose poor Mr. Carver is in disgrace. Perhaps it was not his fault altogether."
This was a trifle too much. I refused to be charitable to Victor.
I heard from him, or of him, next day. I met Captain Jed Dean at the bank, where I had called to see Taylor and inquire concerning how he and Nellie got home from the festival. They had had a damp, though safe, journey, I learned, and the Methodist ladies had cleared seventy-four dollars and eighty-five cents from the entertainment.
Captain Jed entered the door as I left the cashier's gate.
"Ship ahoy, Ros!" hailed the captain, genially. "Make port safe and sound after the flood? I'd have swapped my horse and buggy for Noah's Ark that night and wouldn't have asked any boot neither. Did you see Mullet's bridge? Elnathan says he cal'lates he's got willow kindlin' enough to last him all summer. Ready split too—the lightnin' attended to that. Lute Rogers don't talk about nothin' else. I cal'late he wishes lightnin' would strike your woodpile; then he'd be saved consider'ble labor, hey?"
He laughed and I laughed with him.
"I understood Princess Colton was out in the wust of it," went on Captain Jed. "Did you hear how her horse ran away?"
"Yes," I answered, shortly; "I heard about it."
"Never stopped till it got half way to West Bayport. The coachman hangin' onto the reins and swearin' at the top of his lungs all the time. 'Bije Ellis, who lives up that way, says the road smells like a match factory even yet—so much brimstone in the air. The girl got home somehow or other, they tell me. I cal'late her fine duds got their never-get-over. Nellie says the hat she was wearin' come from Paris, or some such foreign place. Well, the rain falls on the just and unjust, so scriptur tells us, and it's true enough. Only the unjust in this case can afford new hats better'n the just, a consider'ble sight. Denboro's lost a promisin' new citizen; did you know it?"
"Whom do you mean?"
"Hadn't you heard? That young Carver feller shook the dust—the mud, I mean—of our roads off his shoes this mornin'. He went away on the up train."
Here was news. "The up train?" I repeated. "You mean he has gone for good?"
"I should call it for good, for our good, anyhow. Yes, he's gone. Went to the depot in Colton's automobile. His majesty went with him fur's the platform. The gang that saw the proceedin's said the good-bys wan't affectin'. Colton didn't shed any tears and young Carver seemed to be pretty down at the mouth."
"But what makes you think he has gone for good?" I asked.
"Why, Alvin Baker was there, same as he usually is, and he managed to be nigh enough to hear the last words—if there had been any."
"And there were not?"
"Nothin' to amount to much. Nothin' about comin' back, anyhow. Colton said somethin' about bein' remembered to the young feller's ma, and Carver said, 'Thanks,' and that was all. Alvin said 'twas pretty chilly. They've got it all figgered out at the post-office; you see, Carver was to come back to the meetin' house and pick up his princess, and he never come. She started without him and got run away with. Some of the folks paddlin' home from the festival saw the auto go by and heard the crowd inside singin' and laughin' and hollerin'. Nobody's goin' to sing a night like that unless they've got cargo enough below decks to make 'em forget the wet outside. And Beriah Doane was over to Ostable yesterday and he says it's town talk there that young Parker—the boy the auto crowd was sayin' good-by to at the hotel—had to be helped up to his room. No, I guess likely the Colton girl objected to her feller's gettin' tight and forgettin' her, so he and she had a row and her dad, the emperor, give him his discharge papers. Sounds reasonable; don't you think so, yourself?"
I imagined that the surmise was close to the truth. I nodded and turned away. I did not like Carver, I detested him, but somehow I no longer felt triumph at his discomfiture. I wondered if he really cared for the girl he had lost. It was difficult to think of him as really caring for any one except himself, but if I had been in his place and had, through my own foolishness, thrown away the respect and friendship of such a girl. . . . Yes, I was beginning to feel a little of Mother's charity for the young idiot, now that he could no longer insult and patronize me.
Captain Jed followed me to the bank door.
"Say, Ros," he said, "changed your mind about sellin' that Lane land yet?"
"No," I answered, impatiently. "There's no use talking about that, Captain Dean."
"All right, all right. Humph! the fellers are gettin' consider'ble fun out of that Lane."
"In what way?"
He laughed. "Oh, nothin'," he observed, with a wink, "only. . . . Heard any extry hurrahin' over to your place lately?"
"No. Captain, what do you mean?"
"I don't mean nothin'. But I shouldn't wonder if the Great Panjandrum and his folks was reminded that that Lane was still open, that's all. Ho! ho! So long, Ros."
I did not catch his meaning at the time. A few days later I discovered it by accident. I had been up to the village and was on my way home by the short cut. As I crossed the field behind Sylvanus Snow's abandoned house, the spot where Miss Colton and I had waited on the porch the night of the thunder shower, I heard the rattle of a cart going down the Lane. There was nothing unusual in this, of itself, but with it I heard the sound of loud voices. One of these voices was so loud that I caught the words:
"Now, boys, start her up! Three cheers for the Star Spangled Banner and make 'em loud. Let her go!"
The cheers followed, uproarious ones.
"Try it again," commanded the voice. "And keep her up all the way along. We'll shake up the 'nerves' I guess. Hooray!"
This was enough. I understood now what Dean had meant by the Coltons realizing that the Lane was still open. I ran at full speed through the scrub and bushes, through the grove, and emerged upon the Lane directly opposite the Colton estate. The wagon—Zeb Kendrick's weir cart—was approaching. Zeb was driving and behind him in the body of the cart were four or five young fellows whom I recognized as belonging to the "billiard room gang," an unorganized society whose members worked only occasionally but were responsible for most of the mischief and disorder in our village. Tim Hallet, a sort of leader in that society, with the reputation of having been expelled from school three times and never keeping a job longer than a fortnight, was on the seat beside Kendrick, his back to the horse. Zeb was grinning broadly.
The wagon came nearer, the horse barely moving. Tim Hallet waved his arm.
"Now, boys," he shouted, "let's have some music."
"'Everybody works but father, And he sets around all day.'—
Whoop her up!"
They whooped her up. I stepped out into the road.
"Here!" I shouted. "Stop that! Stop it, do you hear! Kendrick, what is all this?"
The song stopped in the middle of the verse. Zeb jerked the reins and shouted "Whoa!" Hallet and his chorus turned. They had been gazing at the big house, but now they turned and looked at me.
"Hello, Ros!" said Kendrick, still grinning, but rather sheepishly. "How be you? Got quite a band aboard, ain't I."
"Hello!" cried Hallet. "It's Ros himself! Ros, you're all RIGHT! Hi, boys! let's give three cheers for the feller that don't toady to nobody—millionaires nor nobody else—hooray for Ros Paine!"
The cheering that followed was not quite as loud as the previous outburst—some of the "gang" may have noticed my attitude and expression—but it was loud enough. Involuntarily I glanced toward the Colton mansion. I saw no one at the windows or on the veranda, and I was thankful for that. The blood rushed to my face. I was so angry that, for the moment, I could not speak.
Tim Hallet appeared to consider my silence and my crimson cheeks as acknowledgments of the compliment just paid me.
"Cal'late they heard that over yonder," he crowed. "Don't you think so, Ros. We've showed 'em what we think of you; now let's give our opinion of them. Three groans for old Colton! Come on!"
Even Zeb seemed to consider this as going too far, for he protested.
"Hold on, Tim!" he cautioned. "A joke's a joke, but that's a little too much; ain't it, Ros."
"Too much be darned!" scoffed Hallet. "We'll show 'em! Now, boys!"
The groans were not given. I sprang into the road, seized the horse by the bridle and backed the wagon into the bank. Tim, insecurely balanced, fell off the seat and joined his comrades on the cart floor.
"Hi!" shouted the startled driver. "What you doin', Ros? What's that for?"
"You go back where you come from," I ordered. "Turn around. Get out of here!"
I saved him the trouble by completing the turn. When I dropped the bridle the horse's head was pointing toward the Lower Road.
"Now get out of here!" I repeated. "Go back where you come from."
"But—but, Ros," protested Zeb, "I don't want to go back. I'm goin' to the shore."
"Then you'll have to go some other way. You can't cross my property."
Hallet, on his knees, looked out over the seat.
"What's the matter with you?" he asked, angrily. "Didn't you say the town could use this Lane?"
"Yes. Any one may use it as long as he behaves himself. When he doesn't behave he forfeits the privilege. Kendrick, you hear me! Go back."
"But I don't want to go back, Ros. If I do I'll have to go clear round by Myrick's, two mile out of my way."
"You should have thought of that before you brought that crowd with you. I won't have this Lane made a public nuisance by any one. Zeb, I'm ashamed of you."
Zeb turned to his passengers. "There!" he whined, "I told you so, Tim. I said you hadn't ought to act that way."
"Aw, what are you givin' us!" sneered Hallet. "You thought 'twas as funny as anybody, Zeb Kendrick. Look here, Ros Paine! I thought you was down on them Coltons. We fellers are only havin' a little fun with 'em for bein' so stuck-up and hoggish. Can't you take a joke?"
"Not your kind. Go back, Zeb."
"But—but can't I use the Lane NO more?" pleaded the driver. "I won't fetch 'em here agin."
"We'll see about that. You can't use it this time. Now go."
Zeb reluctantly spoke to his horse and the wagon began to move. Hallet swore a string of oaths.
"I'm on to you, Paine!" he yelled. "You're standin' in with 'em, after all. You wait till I see Captain Jed."
In three strides I was abreast the cart-tail.
"See him then," said I. "And tell him that if any one uses this Lane for the purpose of wilfully annoying those living near it I'll not only forbid his using it, but I'll prosecute him for trespass. I mean that. Stop! I advise you not to say another word."
I did not intend to prosecute Jim, he was not worth it, but I should have thoroughly enjoyed dragging him out of that wagon and silencing him by primitive methods. My anger had not cooled to any extent. He did not speak to me again, though I heard him muttering as the cart moved off. I remained where I was until I saw it turn into the Lower Road. Then I once more started for home.
I was very much annoyed and disturbed. Evidently this sort of thing had been going on for some time and I had just discovered it. It placed me in a miserable light. When Colton had declared, as he had in both our interviews, that the Lane was a nuisance I had loftily denied the assertion. Now those idiots in the village were doing their best to prove me a liar. I should have expected such behavior from Hallet and his friends, but for Captain Dean to tacitly approve their conduct was unexpected and provoking. Well, I had made my position plain, at all events. But I knew that Tim would distort my words and that the idea of my "standing in" with the Coltons, while professing independence, would be revived. I was destined to be detested and misunderstood by both sides. Yes, Dorinda was right in saying that I might find sitting on the fence uncomfortable. It was all of that.
I entered the grove and was striding on, head down, busy with these and similar reflections, when some one said: "Good morning, Mr. Paine."
I stopped short, came out of the day dream in which I had been giving Captain Jed my opinion of his followers' behavior, looked up, and saw Miss Colton in the path before me.
She was dressed in white, a light, simple summer gown. Her straw hat was simple also, expensive simplicity doubtless, but without a trace of the horticultural exhibits with which Olinda Cahoon, our Denboro milliner, was wont to deck the creations she prepared for customers. Matilda Dean would have sniffed at the hat and gown; they were not nearly as elaborate as those Nellie, her daughter, wore on Sundays. But Matilda or Nellie at their grandest could not have appeared as well dressed as this girl, no matter what she wore. Just now she looked, as Lute or Dorinda might have said, "as if she came out of a band box."
"Good morning," she said, again. She was perfectly self-possessed. Remembrance of our transit of Mullet's cranberry brook did not seem to embarrass her in the least. Nellie Dean would have giggled and blushed, but she did not.
I was embarrassed, I admit it, but I had sufficient presence of mind to remove my hat.
"Good morning," said I. There flashed through my mind the thought that if she had been in that grove for any length of time she must have overheard my lively interview with Kendrick and Tim Hallet. I wondered if she had.
Her next remark settled that question.
"I suppose," she said, soberly, but with the same twinkle in her eye which I had observed once or twice in her father's, "that I should apologize for being here, on your property, Mr. Paine. I judge that you don't like trespassers."
I was more nettled at Zeb and his crowd than ever. "So you saw that performance," I said. "I'm sorry."
"I saw a little of it, and I'm afraid I heard the rest. I was walking here by the bluff and I could not help seeing and hearing."
"Humph! Well, I hope you understand, Miss Colton, that I did not know, until just now, this sort of thing was going on."
She smiled. "Oh, I understand that," she said. "You made that quite plain. Even those people in the wagon understood it, I should imagine."
"I hope they did."
"I did not know you could be so fierce, Mr. Paine. I had not expected it. You almost frightened me. You were so very—well, mild and long-suffering on the other occasions when we met."
"I am not always so mild, Miss Colton. However, if I had known you were within hearing I might not have been quite so emphatic."
"Then I am glad you didn't know. I think those ruffians were treated as they deserved."
"Not half as they deserved. I shall watch from now on and if there are any more attempts at annoying you or your people I shall do more than talk."
"Thank you. They have been troublesome—of late. I am sure we are very much obliged to you, all of us."
"Not at all."
"Oh yes, we are. Not only for this, but for—all the rest. For your help the other night especially; I want to thank you for that."
"It was nothing," I answered, awkwardly.
"Nothing! You are not very complimentary, Mr. Paine."
"I mean—that is, I—"
"You may consider rescuing shipwrecked young ladies, afloat and ashore, nothing—perhaps you do it so often that it is of little consequence to you; but I am not so modest. I estimate my safety as worth something, even if you do not."
"I did not mean that, of course, Miss Colton. You know I did not. I meant that—that what I did was no more than any one else would have done under the same circumstances. You were in no danger; you would have been safe enough even if I had not happened along. Please don't say anything more about it."
"Very well. But I am very glad you happened along, nevertheless. You seem to have the faculty of happening along just at the right time."
This sounded like a reference to the episode in the bay, and I did not care to discuss that.
"You—I believe your father said you were not ill after your experience," I observed hastily.
"Not in the least, thank you. And you?"
"Oh, I was all right. Rather wet, but I did not mind that. I sail and fish a good deal, and water, fresh or salt, doesn't trouble me."
This was an unlucky remark, for it led directly to the subject I was trying to avoid.
"So I should imagine," she answered. "And that reminds me that I owe you another debt of thanks for helping me—helping us out of our difficulty in the boat. I am obliged to you for that also. Even though what you saved was NOT worth five dollars."
I looked up at her quickly. She was biting her lips and there was a smile at the corners of her mouth. I could not answer immediately for the life of me. I would have given something if I had not told Colton of Victor's message and my reply.
"Your father misrepresented my meaning, I'm afraid," I stammered. "I was angry when I sent that message. It was not intended to include you."
"Thank you. Father seemed inclined to agree with your estimate—part of it, at least. He is very much interested in you, Mr. Paine."
"Yes," I answered, dryly. "I can understand that."
Her smile broke into a ripple of laughter.
"You are quite distinctive, in your way," she said. "You may not be aware of it, but I have never known father to be so disturbed and puzzled about any one as he is about you."
"Yes, he is, indeed."
"I am sorry that I am the cause of so much mental strain."
"No, you are not. From what I have learned about you, from him, I think you enjoy it. You must. It is great fun."
"Fun! Well, perhaps. Does your—does Mrs. Colton find it funny?"
She hesitated. "Well," she answered, more slowly, "to be perfectly frank—I presume that is what you want me to be—I think Mother blames you somewhat. She is not well, Mr. Paine, and this Lane of yours is her pet bugbear just now. She—like the rest of us—cannot understand why you will not sell, and, because you will not, she is rather—rather—"
"I see. I'm not sure that I blame her. I presume she has blamed me for these outrageous disturbances in the Lane such as you have just witnessed."
She hesitated again. "Why yes," she said, more slowly still; "a little, I think. She is not well, as I said, and she may have thought you were, if not instigating them, at least aware of what was going on. But I am sure father does not think so."
"But you, Miss Colton; did you believe me responsible for them?"
"Because, from what I have seen of you, you did not seem to me like that kind of a man. You kept your temper that day in the boat, though you had a good reason for losing it. All this," with a gesture toward the Lane, "the shouting and noise and petty insults, was so little and mean and common. I did not believe you would permit it, if you knew. And, from what I have learned about you, I was sure you would not."
"From what you learned about me? From your father?"
"Then from whom, pray?"
"From your friends. From that Mr. Taylor and Miss Dean and the others. They spoke of you so highly, and of your mother and your care of her. They described you as a gentleman, and no gentleman would countenance THAT."