I was so astonished that I blurted out my next question without thinking.
"You were speaking to them about ME?" I cried.
Her manner changed. Possibly she thought I was presuming on our chance acquaintance, or that she made a mistake in admitting even a casual interest; I might consider that interest to be real, instead of merely perfunctory. At any rate, I noticed a difference in her tone. It was as if she had suddenly withdrawn behind the fence which marked the border of our social line.
"Oh," she said, carelessly, "I did not cross-question, of course. Puzzles are always interesting, more or less. And a puzzle which perplexed my father was certainly unique. So I was a trifle curious, that's all."
I came to earth with a thud.
"I see," I said, curtly. "Well, I presume I should thank my friends for the testimonials to my character. And I promise you that you shall not be annoyed again. Good morning, Miss Colton."
I was turning away when she spoke my name.
"Mr. Paine," she said.
"Yes, Miss Colton."
"I have not explained why I was here, on your land, this morning."
"That is all right. You are quite welcome to be here at any time."
"Thank you. I told you I was walking by the bluff; that is true, but it isn't the whole truth. I was trying to muster courage to call on your mother."
I looked at her in amazement.
"Call on Mother!" I repeated.
"Yes, I have heard a great deal about your mother, and nothing except the very best. I think I should like to know her. Do you think she would consider me presuming and intrusive if I did call?"
"Why, Miss Colton, I—"
"Please be frank about it, Mr. Paine. And please believe that my call would not be from idle curiosity. I should like to know her. Of course, if this disagreement about the land makes a difference, if she feels resentful toward us, I will not think of such a thing. Does she? Why do you smile? I am in earnest."
"I did not mean to smile, Miss Colton. The idea of Mother's feeling resentment toward any one seemed absurd to me, that was all."
"Then may I call on her?"
"Certainly. That is, if—if you think it wise. If your mother—"
"Oh, Mother has long ago given up trying to solve me. I am a greater puzzle to her than you seem to be to everyone, Mr. Paine. I have spoken to my father about it and he is quite willing. His difference with you is purely a business one, as you know."
Some of the "business" had been oddly conducted, but I did not raise the point. I could not reason just then. That this spoiled, city-bred daughter of "Big Jim" Colton should wish to know my mother was beyond reasoning.
She said good morning and we parted. I walked home, racking my brains to find the answer to this new conundrum. It was a whim on her part, of course, inspired by something George or Nellie had told her. I did not know whether to resent the whim or not, whether to be angry or indifferent. If she intended to inspect Mother as a possible object of future charity I should be angry and the first call would be the last. But Mother herself would settle all questions of charity; I knew that. And the girl had not spoken in a patronizing way. She had declared that idle curiosity had no part in her wish. She seemed in earnest. What would Mother say when I told her?
Lute was just coming through the gate as I approached it. He was in high good humor.
"I'm goin' up street," he declared. "Anything you want me to fetch you from the store, Ros?"
I looked at my watch. It was only eleven o'clock.
"Up street?" I repeated. "I thought you were slated to wash windows this forenoon. I heard Dorinda give you your orders to that effect. You haven't finished washing them already?"
"No," with a broad grin, "I ain't finished 'em. Fact is, I ain't begun 'em yet."
"So! Does Dorinda know that you are going up street?"
"Um-hm. She knows. Anyhow, she knows I'm goin' somewheres. She told me to go herself."
"She did! Why?"
"Don't ask ME. I was all ready to wash the windows; had the bucket pumped full and everything. But when I come into the dinin'-room she sung out to know what I was doin' with all that water on her clean floor. 'Why, Dorindy!' I says, 'I'm a-goin' to wash them windows same's you told me to.' 'No, you ain't,' says she. 'But what will I do?' says I. 'I don't care,' says she. 'Clear out of here, that's all.' 'But where'll I clear out to?' I wanted to know. 'I don't care!' she snaps again, savage as a settin' hen, 'so long's you clear out of my sight.' So here I be. Don't ask me why she changed her mind: I don't know. Nothin' you want to the store?"
"Say, Ros, you know what I think?"
"Far be it from me to presume to guess your thoughts, Lute."
"Well, I think this is a strange world and the strangest thing in it is a woman. You never can tell what they'll do ten minutes at a stretch. I—"
"All right, Lute. I'll hear the rest of the philosophy later."
"Philosophy or not, it's the livin' truth. And when you're as old as I be you'll know it."
I went in through the dining-room, steering clear of Dorinda, who scarcely looked up from her floor scrubbing.
"Mother," said I, entering the darkened bedroom, "I just met the Colton girl and what do you suppose she told me?"
"That she was very grateful to you for coming to her rescue the other night."
"That, of course. But she told me something else. She said she was coming to call on you. On YOU, Mother!"
I don't know what answer I expected. I flung the announcement like a bombshell and was ready for almost any sort of explosion at all.
"Did she?" observed Mother, placidly. "I am very glad. I have no doubt I shall like her."
My next remark had nothing to do with Miss Colton.
"Well, by George!" I exclaimed, with emphasis. "Lute IS a philosopher, after all. I take off my hat to him."
I met Mabel Colton several times during the following week. Once, at the place where I had met her before, in the grove by the edge of the bluff, and again walking up the Lane in company with her father. Once also on the Lower Road, though that could scarcely be called a meeting, for I was afoot and she and her father and mother were in the automobile.
Only at the meeting in the grove were words exchanged between us. She bowed pleasantly and commented on the wonderful view.
"I am trespassing again, you see," she said. "Taking advantage of your good-nature, Mr. Paine. This spot is the most attractive I have found in Denboro."
I observed that the view from her verandas must be almost the same.
"Almost, but not quite," she said. "These pines shut off the inlet below, and all the little fishing boats. One of them is yours, I suppose. Which?"
"That is my launch there," I replied, pointing.
"The little white one? You built it yourself, I think Father said."
"He was mistaken, if he said that. I am not clever enough to build a boat, Miss Colton. I bought the Comfort, second-hand."
I don't know why I added the "second-hand." Probably because I had not yet freed my mind from the bitterness—yes, and envy—which the sight of this girl and her people always brought with it. It is comparatively easy to be free from envy if one is what George Taylor termed a "never-was"; for a "has been" it is harder.
The boat's name was the only portion of my remark which attracted her attention.
"The Comfort?" she repeated. "That is a jolly name for a pleasure boat."
"It is my mother's name," I answered.
"Is it? Why, I remember now. Miss Dean told me. I beg your pardon, Mr. Paine. It is a pretty name, at all events."
"I must have misunderstood Father. I was sure he said that boat building was your business."
"No. He saw me overhauling the engine, and perhaps that gave him the impression that I was a builder. I told him I was not, but no doubt he forgot. I have no business, Miss Colton."
I think she was surprised. She glanced at me curiously and her lips opened as if to ask another question. She did not ask it however, and, except for a casual remark or two about the view and the blueness of the water in the bay, she said nothing more. I rather expected she would refer to her intention of calling on Mother, but she did not mention the subject. I inferred that she had thought better of her whim.
On the other occasions when we met she merely bowed. "Big Jim" nodded carelessly. Mrs. Colton, from her seat in the auto, nodded also, though her majestic bow could scarcely be termed a nod. It was more like the acknowledgment, by a queen in her chariot, of the applauding citizen on the sidewalk. She saw me, and she deigned to let me know that I was seen, that was all.
But when I inferred that her daughter had forgotten, or had decided not to make the call at our house, I misjudged the young lady. I returned, one afternoon, from a cruise up and down the bay in the Comfort, to find our small establishment—the Rogers portion of it, at least—in a high state of excitement. Lute and Dorinda were in the kitchen and before I reached the back door, which was open, I heard their voices in animated discussion.
"Why wouldn't I say it, Dorinda?" pleaded Lute. "You can't blame me none. There I was, with my sleeves rolled up and just settin' in the chair, restin' my arms a jiffy and thinkin' which window I'd wash next, when there come that knock at the door. Thinks I, 'It's Asa Peters' daughter's young-one peddlin' clams.' That's what come to my mind fust. That idee popped right into my head, it did."
"Found plenty of room when it got there, I cal'late," snapped Dorinda. "Must have felt lonesome."
"That's it! keep on pitchin' into me. I swan to man! sometimes I get so discouraged and wore out and reckless—hello! here's Ros. You ask him now! Ros, she's layin' into me because I didn't understand what—"
"Roscoe," broke in his wife, "I never was more mortified in all my born days. He—"
"Let me tell you all about it, Ros. I went to the door—thinkin' 'twas a peddler, you know; had this old suit on, all sloshed up with soapsuds and water, and a wet rag in my hand; and there she stood, styled up like the Queen of Sheby. Well, sir! I'll leave it to you if 'tain't enough to surprise anybody. HER! comin' HERE!"
"That wan't any reason why you should behave like a natural born—"
"Hold on! you let me finish tellin' Roscoe. 'Good afternoon,' says she. 'Is Mrs. Paine in?' Said it just like that, she did. I was so flustered up from the sight of her that I didn't sense it right off and I says, 'What ma'am?' 'Is Mrs. Paine in?' says she. 'In?' says I—"
"Just like a poll parrot," interjected Dorinda.
"Are you goin' to let me tell this or ain't you? 'In?' says I; hadn't sensed it yet, you see. 'Is Mrs. Paine to home?' she says. Now your ma, Ros, ain't never been nowheres else BUT home sence land knows when, so I supposed she must mean somebody else. 'Who?' says I, again. 'Mrs. Comfort Paine,' says she. She raised her voice a little; guessed I was deef, probably."
"If she'd guessed you was dumb she wouldn't have been fur off," commented Dorinda. I had not seen her so disturbed for many a day.
Her husband disdained to notice this interruption.
"'Mrs. Comfort Paine,' says she," he continued. "'She is in? And I says 'In?'"
"No, you didn't. You said, 'In where?' And she had all she could do to keep from laughin'. I see her face as I got to the door, and it's a mercy I got there when I did. Land knows what you'd have said next!"
"But, Dorindy, I tell you I thought—"
"YOU thought! I know what SHE must have thought. That she'd made a mistake and run afoul of an asylum for the feeble-minded."
"Umph! I should have GOT feeble-minded if I'd had any more of that kind of talk. What made her ask if a sick woman like Comfort was 'in' and 'to home'? Couldn't be nowheres else, could she?"
"Rubbish! she meant could Mrs. Paine see folks, that's all."
"See 'em! How you talk! She ain't blind."
"Oh, my soul and body! She was tryin' to ask if she might make a call on Comfort."
"Well then, why didn't she ask it; 'stead of wantin' to know if she was in?"
"That's the high-toned way TO ask, and you'd ought to have known it."
"Humph! Do tell! Well, I ain't tony, myself. Don't have no chance to be in this house. Nothin' but work, work, work! tongue, tongue, tongue! for me around here. I'm disgusted, that's what I am."
"YOU'RE disgusted! What about, me?"
I had listened to as much of this little domestic disagreement as I cared to hear.
"Wait a minute," I said. "What is all this? Who has been here to see Mother?"
Both answered at once.
"That Colton girl," cried Lute.
"That Mabel Colton," said Dorinda.
"Miss Colton? She has been here? this afternoon."
"Um-hm," Dorinda nodded emphatically. "She stayed in your ma's room 'most an hour."
"'Twas fifty-three minutes," declared Lute. "I timed her by the clock. And she fetched a great, big bouquet. Comfort says she—"
I waited to hear no more, but went into Mother's room. The little bed chamber was fragrant with the perfume of flowers. A cluster of big Jacqueminot roses drooped their velvety petaled heads over the sides of the blue and white pitcher on the bureau. Mother loved flowers and I frequently brought her the old fashioned posies from Dorinda's little garden or wild blossoms from the woods and fields. But roses such as these were beyond my reach now-a-days. They grew in greenhouses, not in the gardens of country people.
Mother did not move as I entered and I thought she was asleep. But as I bent over the roses she turned on the pillow and spoke.
"Aren't they beautiful, Roscoe?" she said.
"Yes," I answered. "They are beautiful."
"Do you know who brought them to me?"
"Yes, Mother. Lute told me."
"She did call, you see. She kept her word. It was kind of her, wasn't it?"
I sat down in the rocking chair by the window.
"Well," I asked, after a moment, "what did she say? Did she condescend to pity her pauper neighbors?"
"Did she express horrified sympathy and offer to call your case to the attention of her cousin in charge of the Poor Ward in the City General Hospital, like that woman from the Harniss hotel last summer?"
"Boy! How can you!"
"Oh, well; I am a jealous beast, Mother; I admit it. But I have not been able to bring you flowers like that and it galls me to think that others can. They don't deserve to have all the beautiful things in life, while the rest of us have none."
"But it isn't her fault that she has them, is it? And it was kind to share them with us."
"I suppose so. Well, what did she say to you? Dorinda says she was with you nearly an hour. What did you and she talk about? She did not offer charity, did she?"
"Do you think I should have accepted it, if she had? Roscoe, I have never seen you so prejudiced as you are against our new neighbors. It doesn't seem like you, at all. And if her father and mother are like Miss Mabel, you are very wrong. I like her very much."
"You would try to like any one, Mother."
"I did not have to try to like her. And I was a little prejudiced, too, at first. She was so wealthy, and an only child; I feared she might be conceited and spoiled. But she isn't."
"Not conceited! Humph!"
"No, not really. At first she seemed a trifle distant, and I thought her haughty; but, afterward, when her strangeness and constraint had worn away, she was simple and unaffected and delightful. And she is very pretty, isn't she."
"She told me a great deal about herself. She has been through Vassar and has traveled a great deal. This is the first summer since her graduation which she has not spent abroad. She and I talked of Rome and Florence. I—I told her of the month I spent in Italy when you were a baby, Roscoe."
"You did not tell her anything more, Mother? Anything she should not know?"
"Pardon me, Mother. Of course you didn't. Did she tell you why she called on us—on you, I mean?"
"Yes, in a way. I imagine—though she did not say so—that you are responsible for that. She and Nellie Dean seem to be well acquainted, almost friendly, which is odd, for I can scarcely think of two girls more different. But she likes Nellie, that is evident, and Nellie and George have told her about you and me."
"I see. And so she was curious concerning the interesting invalid. Probably anything even mildly interesting is a godsend to her, down here. Did she mention the Shore Lane rumpus?"
"Yes. Although I mentioned it first. It was plain that she could not understand your position in the matter, Roscoe, and I explained it as well as I could. I told her that you felt the Lane was a necessity to the townspeople, and that, under the circumstances, you could not sell. I told her how deeply you sympathized with her mother—"
"Did you tell her that?"
"Why, yes. It is true, isn't it?"
"Humph! Mildly so, maybe. What more did she say?"
"She said she thought she understood better now. I told her about you, Boy, and what a good son you had been to me. How you had sacrificed your future and your career for my sake. Of course I could not go into particulars, at all, but we talked a great deal about you, Roscoe."
"That must have been deliriously interesting—to her."
"I think it was. She told me of your helping her home through the storm, and of something else you had not told me, Boy: of your bringing her and Mr. Carver off the flat in the boat that day. Why did you keep that a secret?"
"It was not worth telling."
"She thought it was. She laughed about it; said you handled the affair in a most businesslike and unsentimental way; she never felt more like a bundle of dry-goods in her life, but that that appeared to be your manner of handling people. It was a somewhat startling manner, but very effective, she said. I don't know what she meant by that."
I knew, but I did not explain.
"You don't mean to say, Mother, that you glorified me to her for an hour?" I demanded.
"No, indeed. We talked of ever so many things. Of books, and pictures, and music. I'm afraid I was rather wearisome. It seemed so good to have some one—except you, of course, dear—to discuss such subjects with. Most of my callers are not interested in them."
I was silent.
"She is coming again, she says," continued Mother. "She has some new books she is going to lend me. You must read them to me. And aren't those roses wonderful? She picked them, herself, in their conservatory. I told her how fond you were of flowers."
I judged that the young lady must have gone away with the idea that I was a combination of longshore lout and effeminate dilettante, with the financial resources of the former. She might as well have that idea as any other, I supposed, but, in her eyes, I must be more of a freak than ever. I should take care to keep out of the sight of those eyes as much as possible. But that the millionaire's daughter had made a hit on the occasion of her first call was plain. Not only had Mother been favorably impressed, but even the practical and unromantic Dorinda's shell was dented. She deigned to observe that the young lady seemed to have "consider'ble common-sense, considerin' her bringin' up." This, from Dorinda, was high praise, and I wondered what the caller had said or done to win such a triumph. Lute made the matter clear.
"By time!" he said, when he and I were together, "that girl's a smart one. I'd give somethin' to have her kind of smartness. Dorindy was terrible cranky all the time she was in your ma's room and I didn't know what would happen when she come out. But the fust thing she done when she come out was to look around the dinin' room and say, 'Oh! what a pleasant, homey place! And so clean! Why, it is perfectly spotless!' Land sakes! the old lady thawed out like a cranberry bog in April. After that they talked about housekeepin' and cookin' and such, sociable as could be. Dorindy's goin' to give her her receipt for doughnuts next time she comes. And I bet that girl never cooked a doughnut in her life or ever will. If I could think of the right thing to say, like that, 'twould save me more'n one ear-ache. But I never do think of it till the next day, and then it's too late."
He borrowed my tobacco, filled his pipe, and continued:
"Say, Ros," he asked, "what's your idea of what made her come here?"
"To see Mother, of course," I answered.
"That's your notion, is it?"
"Certainly. What else?"
"Humph! There's other sick folks in town. Why don't she go to see them?"
"Perhaps she does. I don't know."
"I bet you ten cents she don't. No, I've been reasonin' of it out, same as I gen'rally do, and I've got some notions of my own. You don't cal'late her pa sent her so's to sort of soft soap around toward his gettin' the Shore Lane? You don't cal'late 'twas part of that game, do you?"
That supposition had crossed my mind more than once. I was ashamed of it and now I denied it, indignantly.
"Of course not," I answered.
"Well, I don't think so, myself. But if 'tain't that it's another reason. She may be interested in Comfort; I don't say she ain't; but that ain't all she's interested in."
"What do you mean?"
"Never mind. I ain't said nothin'. I'm just waitin' to see, that's all. I have had some experience in this world, I have. There's different times comin' for this family, you set that down in your log-book, Ros Paine."
"Look here, Lute; if you are hinting that Miss Colton or her people intend offering us charity—"
"Who said anything about charity? No; if she had that idee in her head, her talk with your ma would drive it out. 'Tain't charity, I ain't sayin' what 'tis. . . . I wonder how 'twould seem to be rich."
"Lute, you're growing more foolish every day."
"So Dorindy says; but she nor you ain't offered no proof yet. All right, you wait and see. And say, Ros, don't mention our talk to Dorindy. She's more'n extry down on me just now, and if I breathe that Mabel Colton's name she hops right up in the air. How'd I know that askin' if a woman who's been sick in bed six year or more was 'in' meant could she have folks come to see her?"
Mother would have discussed the Coltons with me frequently, but I avoided the subject as much as possible. The promised books arrived—brought over by Johnson, the butler, who viewed our humble quarters with lofty disdain—and I read one of them aloud to Mother, a chapter each evening. More flowers came also and the darkened bedroom became a bower of beauty and perfume. If I had yielded to my own wishes I should have returned both roses and books. It was better, as I saw it, that we and our wealthy neighbors had nothing to do with each other. Real friendship was out of the question; the memory of Mrs. Colton's frigid bow and her reference to me as a "person" proved that. Her daughter might think otherwise, or might think that she thought so, but I knew better. However, I did not like to pain Mother by refusing offerings which, to her, were expressions of sympathy and regard, so I had no protest and tried to enthuse over the gifts and loans. After all, what did they amount to? One tea-rose bred from Dorinda's carefully tended bush, or one gushful story book selected by Almena Doane from the new additions to the town library and sent because she thought "Mrs. Comfort might find it sort of soothin' and distractin'," meant more real unselfish thought and kindly feeling than all the conservatory exotics and new novels which the rich girl's whim supplied from her overflowing store. I was surprised only that the whim lasted so long.
Behind all this, I think, and confirming my feeling, was the fact that Miss Colton did not repeat her call. A week or more passed and she did not come. I caught glimpses of her occasionally in the auto, or at the post-office, but I took care that she should not see me. I did not wish to be seen, though precisely why I could not have explained even to myself. The memory of that night in the rain, and of our meetings in the grove, troubled me because I could not keep them from my mind. They kept recurring, no matter what I did or where I went. No, I did not want to meet her again. Somehow, the sight and memory of her made me more dissatisfied and discontented than ever. I found myself moodily wishing for things beyond my reach, longing to be something more than I was—more than the nobody which I knew I must always be. I remembered my feelings on the morning of the day when I first saw her. Now they seemed almost like premonitions.
I kept away; not only from her, but from George Taylor and Captain Dean and the townspeople. I went to the village scarcely at all. Sim Eldredge, who had evidently received orders from headquarters to drop the Lane "agency," troubled me no more, merely glowering reproachfully when we met; and Alvin Baker, whose note had been renewed, although he hailed me with effusive cordiality, did not press his society upon me, having no axe to grind at present. Zeb Kendrick was using the Lane again, but he took care to bring no more "billiard roomers" as passengers. I had as yet heard nothing from my quarrel with Tim Hallet.
I spent a good deal of my time in the Comfort, or wandering about the shore and in the woods. One warm, cloudy morning the notion seized me to go up to the ponds and try for black bass. There are bass in some of the larger ponds—lakes they would be called anywhere else except on Cape Cod—and, if one is lucky, and the weather is right, and the bait tempting, they may be caught. This particular morning promised to furnish the proper brand of weather, and a short excursion on the flats provided a supply of shrimps and minnows for bait. Dorinda, who happened to be in good humor, put up a lunch for me and, at seven o'clock, with my rod and landing net in their cases, strapped, with my fishing boots and coffee pot, to my back, and my bait pail in one hand and lunch basket in the other, I started on my tramp. It was a long four miles to Seabury's Pond, my destination, and Lute, to whom, like most country people, the idea of a four-mile walk was sheer lunacy, urged my harnessing the horse and driving there. But I knew the overgrown wood roads and the difficulty of piloting a vehicle through them, and, moreover, I really preferred to go afoot. So I marched off and left him protesting.
Very few summer people—and only summer people or irresponsible persons like myself waste time in freshwater fishing on the Cape—knew where Seabury's Pond was. It lay far from macadam roads and automobile thoroughfares and its sandy shores were bordered with verdure-clad hills shutting it in like the sides of a bowl. To reach it from Denboro one left the Bayport road at "Beriah Holt's place," followed Beriah's cow path to the pasture, plunged into the oak and birch grove at the southern edge of that pasture, emerged on a grass-grown and bush-encumbered track which had once been the way to some early settler's home, and had been forsaken for years, and followed that track, in all its windings, until he saw the gleam of water between the upper fringe of brush and the lower limbs of the trees. Then he left the track and clambered down the steep slope to the pond.
I am a good walker, but I was tired long before I reached the slope. The bait pail, which I refilled with fresh water at Beriah's pump, grew heavier as I went on, and I began to think Lute knew what he was talking about when he declared me to be "plumb crazy, hoofin' it four mile loaded down with all that dunnage." However, when the long "hoof" was over, and I sat down in a patch of "hog-cranberry" vines for a smoke, with the pond before me, I was measurably happy. This was the sort of thing I liked. Here there were no Shore Lane controversies, but real independence and peace.
After my smoke was finished and I had rested, I carried my "dunnage" around to the point where I intended to begin my fishing, put the lunch basket in a shady place beneath the bushes, and the bait pail in the water nearby, changed my shoes for the fishing boots, rigged my rod and was ready.
At first the fishing was rather poor. The pond was full of perch and they were troublesome. By and by, however, I hooked a four-pound pickerel and he stirred my lagging ambition. I waded on, casting and playing beyond the lily pads and sedge. At last I got my first bass, a small one, and had scarcely landed him than a big fellow struck, fought, rose and broke away. That was spur sufficient. All the forenoon I waded about the shores of that pond. When at half-past eleven the sun came out and I knew my sport was over, for the time at least, I had four bass—two of them fine ones—and two, pickerel. Then I remembered my appetite and Dorinda's luncheon.
I went back to the point and inspected the contents of the basket. Sandwiches, cold chicken, eggs, doughnuts and apple puffs. They looked good to me. Also there were pepper and salt in one paper, sugar in another, coffee in a third, and milk in a bottle. I collected some dry chips and branches and prepared to kindle a fire. As I bent over the heap of sticks and chips I heard the sound of horses' hoofs in the woods near by.
I was surprised and annoyed. The principal charm of Seabury Pond was that so few people visited it. Also fewer still knew how good the fishing was there. I was not more than ordinarily selfish, but I did not care to have the place overrun with excursionists from the city, who had no scruples as to number and size of fish caught and would ruin the sport as they had ruined it at other and better known ponds. The passerby, whoever he was—a native probably—would, if he saw me, ask questions concerning my luck, and be almost sure to tell every one he met. I left my fire unkindled, stepped back to the shade of the bushes and waited in silence, hoping the driver would go on without stopping. There was no real road on this side of the pond, but there was an abandoned wood track, like that by which I had come. The horse was approaching along the track; the sounds of hoofs and crackling branches grew plainer.
The odd part of it was that I heard no rattle of wheels. It was almost as if the person was on horseback. This seemed impossible, because no one in Denboro or Bayport—no one I could think of, at least—owned or rode a saddle horse. Yet the hoof beats grew louder and there was no squeak, or jolt, or rattle to bear them company. They came to a point in the woods directly opposite where I sat in the shade of the bushes and there they stopped. Then they recommenced and the crackle of branches was louder than ever. The rider, whoever he was, was coming down the bank to the pond.
A moment more and the tall swamp-huckleberry bushes at the edge of the sandy beach parted and between them stepped gingerly a clean-cut, handsome brown horse, which threw up its head at the sight of the water and then trotted lightly toward it. The rider, who sat so easily in the saddle, was a girl. And the girl was Mabel Colton!
She did not notice me at first, but gave her attention to the horse. The animal waded into the water to its knees and, in obedience to a pull on the reins, stopped, bent its head, and began to drink. Then the rider turned in her seat, looked about her, saw the heap of wood for the fire, the open lunch basket, the rods and landing-net, and—me.
I had stepped from the bushes when she first appeared and was standing motionless, staring, I imagine, like what Dorinda sometimes called her husband—a "born gump." There was Fate in this! no doubt about it. The further I went to avoid this girl, and the more outlandish and forsaken the spot to which I fled, the greater the certainty of our meeting. A feeling of helplessness came over me, as if I were in the clutch of destiny and no effort of mine could break that clutch.
For a moment she looked as if she might be thinking the same thing. She started when she saw me and her lips parted.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, softly. Then we gazed at each other without speaking.
She was the first to recover from the surprise. Her expression changed. The look of alarm caused by my sudden appearance left her face, but the wonder remained.
"Why! Why, Mr. Paine!" she cried. "Is it you?"
I stepped forward.
"Why, Miss Colton!" said I.
She drew a breath of relief. "It IS you!" she declared. "I was beginning to believe in hallucinations. How you startled me! What are you doing here?"
"That is exactly what I was going to ask you," I replied. "I am here for a fishing excursion. But what brought you to this out-of-the-way place?"
She smiled and patted the horse's shoulder. "Don here brought me," she answered. "He saw the water and I knew he was thirsty, so I came straight down the bank. But I didn't expect to find any one here. I haven't seen a horse or a human being for an hour. What a pretty little lake this is. What is its name?"
"It is called Seabury's Pond. How did you find it?"
"I didn't. Don found it. He and I came for a gallop in the woods and I let him choose his own paths. I have been in his charge all the morning. I haven't the least idea where we are. There, Don! you have had enough and you are splashing us dreadfully. Come back!"
She backed the horse out of the water and turned his head toward the woods.
"It is great fun to be lost," she observed. "I didn't suppose any one could be lost in Denboro."
"But this isn't Denboro. Seabury's Pond is in Bayport township."
"Is it, really? In Bayport? Then I must be a long way from home."
"You are; four miles and a half, at least. More than that over the road."
She looked at her watch and frowned slightly.
"Dear me!" she said. "And it is after twelve already. I am perfectly sure I can't find the way back in time for luncheon."
"I shall be glad to go with you and show you the way."
"No, indeed! Don and I will get home safely. This isn't the first time we have been lost together, though not on Cape Cod. Of course I shouldn't think of taking you from your fishing. Have you had good luck?"
"Pretty fair. Some bass and two good-sized pickerel."
"Really! Bass? I didn't know there were any about here. May I see them?"
"Certainly. They are over there in the bushes."
She swung lightly down from the saddle and, taking her horse by the bridle, led him toward the spot where my catch lay, covered with leaves and wet grass. I removed the covering and she bent over the fish.
"Oh, splendid!" she exclaimed, with enthusiasm. "That big one must be a three-pounder. I envy you. Bass fishing is great sport. Did you get these on a fly—the bass, I mean?"
"No. I use a fly in the spring and fall, but seldom in June or July, here. Those were taken with live bait-shrimp. The pickerel with minnows. Are you fond of fishing, Miss Colton?"
"Yes, indeed. Whoa, Don! steady! Yes, I fish a good deal in September, when we are at our lodge in the Adirondacks. Trout there, principally. But I have caught bass in Maine. I thought I must give it up this year. I did not know there were fish, in fresh water, on the Cape."
"There are, a few. The people about here pay no attention to them. They scorn such small fry. Cod and pollock are more in their line."
"I suppose so. But that is all the better for you, isn't it? Were you fishing when I interrupted you?"
"No, I was just getting ready for lunch. My fire was ready to kindle."
"Fire? Why did you need a fire?"
"For my coffee."
"Coffee! You are a luxurious picnicer, Mr. Paine. Hot coffee on a fishing trip! and without a guide. And you are unfeeling, besides, for you remind me that I am very hungry. I must go at once. How far am I from home? Four miles, did you say?"
"Four and a half, or more, by road. And the roads are like those you have been traveling this morning. I doubt if you could find the way, even with your horse's help. I must insist upon going with you as far as the main road between Denboro and Bayport."
"I shall not permit it."
"But I insist."
Her answer was a little laugh. She put her foot in the stirrup and vaulted to the saddle.
"Your insisting is useless, you see," she said. "You are on foot and I have the advantage. No, Don and I will go alone, thank you. Now, will you please tell me the way?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Go back along the road you came," I said, "until you reach the second, no, the third, path to the right. Follow that to the second on the left. Then follow that for two hundred yards or so until—well, until you reach a clump of bushes, high bushes. Behind these is another path, a blind one, and you must take care to pick the right clump, because there is another one with a path behind it and that path joins the road to Harniss. If you should take the Harniss road you would go miles out of your way. Take the blind path I speak of and—"
She interrupted me. "Stop! stop!" she exclaimed; "please don't. I am absolutely bewildered already. I had no idea I was in such a maze. Let me see! Second to the right; third to the left—"
"No, third to the right and second to the left."
"And then the bushes and the choice of blind paths. Don, I see plainly that you and I must trust to Providence. Well, it is fortunate that the family are accustomed to my ways. They won't be alarmed, no matter how late I may be."
"Miss Colton, I am not going to allow you to go alone. Of course I am not. I can set you on the right road and get back here in plenty of time for fishing. The fish are not hungry in the middle of the day."
"No, but you are. I know you must be, because—no, good day, Mr. Paine."
She spoke to the horse and he began to move. I took my courage between my teeth, ran after the animal and seized the bridle.
"You are not going alone," I said, decidedly. I was smiling, but determined.
She looked at me in surprised indignation.
"What do you mean?" she said.
I merely smiled. Her chin lifted and her brows drew together. I recognized that look; I had seen it before, on that afternoon when I announced my intention of carrying her from the dingy to the skiff.
"Will you be good enough to let go of my rein?" she asked. Every word was a sort of verbal icicle. I felt the chill and my smile was rather forced; but I held the bridle.
"No," I said, serenely as I could. For a minute—I suppose it was not longer than that, it seemed an hour to me—we remained as we were. Then her lips began to curl upward at the corners, and, to my surprise, she burst out laughing.
"Really, Mr. Paine," she said, "you are the most impossible person I ever met. Do you always order people about this way? I feel as if I were about five years old and you were my nurse. Are we to stand here the rest of the afternoon?"
"Yes; unless you permit me to go with you and show you the way."
"But I can't. I'm not going to spoil your picnic. I know you want your lunch. You must. Or, if you don't, I want mine."
"If you go alone, there are nine chances in ten that you will not get home in time for dinner, to say nothing of lunch."
She looked at me oddly, I thought, and started to speak. Whatever it was she was going to say she evidently thought better of it, for she remained silent.
Then I had a new idea. Whether or not it was her look which inspired it I do not know. I think it must have been; I never would have dared such a thing without inspiration.
"Miss Colton," I said, hesitatingly, "if you really are not—if you are sure your people will not worry about you—I—I should be glad to share my lunch with you. Then we could go home together afterward."
She did not look at me now. Instead she turned her head.
"Are—are you sure there is enough for two?" she asked, in a curiously choked tone.
By way of answer I led the horse to the bushes, drew the lunch basket from the shade, and threw back the cover. Dorinda's picnic lunches were triumphs and she had never put up a more tempting one.
Miss Colton looked down into the basket.
"Oh!" she exclaimed.
"There appears to be enough, doesn't there?" I observed, drily.
"But—but I couldn't think of . . . Are you sure I won't be . . . Thank you. Yes, I'll stay."
Before I could offer my hand to help her from the saddle she sprang to the ground. Her eyes were sparkling.
"Mr. Paine," she said, in a burst of confidence, "it is shameless to tell you so, I know, but I was dreadfully afraid you weren't going to ask me. I am absolutely STARVED."
"And now," continued Miss Colton, after an interval during which, I presume, she had been waiting for some reply to her frank declaration concerning mind and appetite, "what must I do to help? Shall I unpack the basket?"
I was struggling, as we say in Denboro, to get the ship under control. I had been taken aback so suddenly that I had lost steerage way. My slight experience with the vagaries of the feminine mind had not prepared me for the lightning changes of this kind. Not two minutes before she had, if one might judge by her look and tone, been deeply offended, almost insulted, because I refused to permit her wandering off alone into the woods. My invitation to lunch had been given on the spur of the moment and with no idea that it would be accepted. And she not only accepted, but had expected me to invite her, had been fearful that I might not do so. She told me so, herself.
"Shall I unpack the basket?" she repeated. She was looking at me intently and the toe of her riding boot was patting the leaves. "What is the matter? Are you sorry I am going to stay?"
It was high time for me to get under way. There were squalls on the horizon.
"Oh, no, no!" I exclaimed, hastily. "Of course not. I am delighted. But you need not trouble to help. Just let me attend to your horse and I will have lunch ready in a jiffy."
I led Don over to the little green belt of meadow between the trees and the sand of the beach, unbuckled the reins and made him fast to a stout birch. He bent his head and began to pull big mouthfuls of the rich grass. He, too, was evidently glad to accept my invitation.
When I returned to my camping ground I found the basket unpacked and the young lady arranging the eatables.
"You shouldn't have done that," I said. "I am the host here."
She did not look up. "Don't bother the table maid," she observed, briskly. "That fire is not kindled yet."
I lit the fire and, going over to the bushes, selected two of the fish, a bass and a pickerel. I carried them down to the shore of the pond and began cleaning them, using my jacknife and a flat stone. I was nearing the end of the operation when she came over to watch.
"Why are you doing that?" she asked. "You are not going to cook them—now—are you?"
"I am going to try," I replied.
"But how? You haven't anything to cook them in."
"I don't need it. You don't appreciate the conveniences of this hotel, Miss Colton. There! now we're ready."
I rose, washed my hands in the pond, and picked up two other flat stones, large ones, which I had previously put aside. These I carried to the fire and, raking aside the burning logs with a stick, laid the stones in a bed of hot coals.
"Those are our frying pans," I informed her. "When they are hot enough they will cook the fish. At least, I hope they will. Now for the coffee."
But she waved me aside. "The coffee is my affair," she said. "I insist upon making the coffee. Oh, you need not look at me like that. I am not altogether useless. I studied Domestic Science—a little—in my prep school course. As much as I studied anything else," laughingly.
"Mr. Paine, I am not on horseback now and you can't hold my bridle as you did Don's. If you will fill the coffee pot and put it on to boil. Thank you. I am glad to see that even you obey orders, sometimes."
I had cooked fish in out-of-door fashion often before, but I am quite sure I never took such pains as I did with these. They were not culinary triumphs, even at that, but my guest was kind enough to pronounce them delicious. The lunch basket contained two plates, but only one knife and fork. These I insisted upon her using and I got on very well with sharpened sticks and a spoon. The coffee was—well, it had one qualification, strength.
We conversed but little during the meal. The young lady said she was too hungry to talk and I was so confounded with the strangeness of the whole affair that I was glad to be silent. Sitting opposite me, eating Dorinda's doughnuts and apple puffs and the fish that I—I had cooked, was "Big Jim" Colton's daughter, the automobile girl, the heiress, the "incarnation of snobbery," the young lady whose father I had bidden go to the devil and to whom, in company with the rest of the family, I had many times mentally extended the same invitation. And now we were picnicing together as if we were friends of long standing. Why, Nellie Dean could not appear more unpretentious and unconscious of social differences than this girl to-day! What would her parents say if they saw us like this? What would Captain Jed, and the rest of those in rebellion against the Emperor of New York, say? That I was a traitor, hand and glove with the enemy. Well, I was not; and I did not intend to be. But for her to—
She interrupted my meditations.
"Mr. Paine," she observed, suddenly, "you will excuse my mentioning it, but you are distinctly not entertaining. You have not spoken a word for five minutes. And you are not attending to my needs. The apple puffs are on your side of the—table."
I hastened to pass the paper containing the puffs.
"I beg your pardon," I said, hurriedly. "I—I was daydreaming, I guess."
"So I imagined. I forgive you; this lunch would tempt me to forgive greater sins than yours. Did that delightful old housekeeper of yours cook all these nice things?"
"She did. So you think Dorinda delightful, do you?"
"Yes. She is so sincere and good-hearted. And so odd and bright and funny. I could listen to her for hours."
"Humph! Well, if you were a member of her household you would have that privilege often. I doubt if her husband considers it such a privilege."
"Her husband? Oh, yes! I met him. He is a character, too, isn't he?"
"Yes; a weak one."
She put down her coffee cup and sighed, contentedly.
"I think I never tasted anything so good as this lunch," she observed. "And I'm quite sure I never ate so much at one sitting. I am going to help you clear away, but please don't ask me to do it just now. Have you finished? You may smoke, if you like."
I had been longing for a smoke and now I filled my pipe and lighted it.
"Now we can talk, can't we?" she said. "I want you to tell me about your mother. How is she?"
"Just as she was when you saw her," I answered. "Mother is always the same."
"She is a dear. I had heard so many nice things about her and I was not disappointed. I intended to make only a short call and I stayed and stayed. I hope I did not tire her."
"Not at all. Mother enjoyed your call exceedingly."
"Did she? I am so glad. I really am. I went to your house with a good deal of misgiving, Mr. Paine. I feared that my coming might be considered an intrusion."
"I told you that it would not."
"I know. But, under the circumstances—Father's disagreement with—considering all the—the—Oh, what shall I call it?"
"The late unpleasantness," I suggested.
Again came the twinkle in her eye. She nodded.
"Thank you," she said. "That is a quotation, but it was clever of you to think of it. Yes, considering the late unpleasantness, I was afraid my visit might be misunderstood. I was fearful that your mother or—someone—might think I came there with an ulterior motive, something connected with that troublesome Lane dispute. Of course no one did think such a thing?"
She asked the question quickly and with intense seriousness. I remembered Lute's hint and my own secret suspicions, but I answered promptly.
"Of course not," I said.
"You did not think that, did you?"
"I came because from what I had heard of your mother I was sure she must be a wonderful woman. I wanted to meet her. And she IS wonderful; and so patient and sweet and good. I fell in love with her. Everyone must love her. You should be proud of your mother, Mr. Paine."
"I am," I answered, simply.
"You have reason. And she is very proud of you."
"Without the reason, I'm afraid."
She did not speak. Her silence hurt. I felt that I knew what she was thinking and I determined to make her say it.
"Without the reason," I repeated.
"I did not say that."
"But you thought it."
My stubborn persistence was a mistake. Again, as at our meeting in the grove, I had gone too far. Her answer was as completely indifferent as speech and tone could be.
"Indeed?" she said, coldly. "It is barely possible that I did not think about it at all. . . . Now, Mr. Paine, if you are ready shall we clear away?"
The clearing, most of it, was done silently. I washed the plates, the coffee pot and other things, in the pond and she packed them in the basket. As I returned with the knife and forks I found her looking at the coffee pot and smiling.
"What is the matter?" I asked, sulkily. I was provoked with myself for forgetting who and what I was, and with her for making me forget. "Isn't it clean?"
"Why, yes," she answered, "surprisingly so. Did they teach Domestic Science at your college, too?"
I started. "MY college!" I repeated. "How did you know I had been at college? Did Mother tell you?"
She laughed gleefully.
"Did Mother tell you?" I demanded. "If she did—"
"Well, what if she did? However, she did not. But you have told me now. Harvard, was it? or Yale?"
I tossed the knife and fork into the basket and turned away.
"Princeton, perhaps," suggested Miss Colton.
I walked over and began to unjoint my rod. I was a fool to be trapped like this. No one in Denboro except Mother and George Taylor knew of my brief college career, and now I had, practically, told this girl of it. She might—if she were sufficiently interested to remember, which was fortunately not probable—tell her father and he might ask other questions concerning my history. Where would those questions lead?
I was angrily tugging at the rod when I heard her step behind me. I did not turn.
"I beg your pardon," she said.
I pretended not to hear.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Paine," she said again.
"It's all right," I muttered. "No apologies are necessary."
I said it like a sullen schoolboy. There was another moment of silence. Then I heard her move away. I looked over my shoulder. She was walking toward the meadow where Don, the horse, was picketed. There was offended dignity in every line of her figure.
For a moment I fought with my pride and injured self-respect. Then I hurried after her.
"Miss Colton," I said.
"Well?" she neither turned nor stopped.
"Miss Colton, I should not have answered like that. I was rude."
She stopped. "You were," she said.
"I know it. I am sorry. I apologize."
"No apologies are necessary."
Here was tit for tat. I did not know what more to say, so I said nothing.
"Do I understand that you ask my pardon?" she inquired, still without turning.
"I do. If you will permit me, I will explain. I—"
She whirled about and faced me. To my astonishment she was smiling once more.
"Of course you won't explain," she declared. "I had no right to ask you about your college. But I couldn't help guessing. I told you that I liked puzzles. We'll say no more about it. I have enjoyed this picnic and I won't have it spoiled. Now why are you taking your rod apart?"
"Because I know you want to go home and I am going with you to show you the way."
"But I don't have to go yet, do I? It is not late. And I thought perhaps you would let me see you catch another bass. Won't you? Please."
Once more she had me at a disadvantage. I had no desire for more fishing, and I was fearful of further questions, but what could I do? And it was not late—but a little past two o'clock.
So I rigged the rod again and led the way down the shore to the spot where the sedge extended out into the pond, with the lily pads beyond it. She walked beside me. Then she seated herself on a fallen tree and I baited the hook with a lively minnow and cast. For some time I got not even a nibble. As I waited she and I talked. But now it was I who questioned.
"Do you like Denboro?" I asked.
"I am beginning to like it very much. At first I thought it very dull, but now I am getting acquainted."
"There are few cottagers and summer people here. But in Harniss there is a large colony. Very nice people, I believe."
"Yes, I have met some of them. But it was not the summer people I meant. I am beginning to know the townspeople and to like some of them. I met that delightful old Captain Warren the other day."
"He is as good as they make."
"Indeed he is. And I had an interview with another captain, Miss Dean's father, yesterday. We had an interesting encounter."
"So I should imagine. Captain Jed! Whew! It MUST have been interesting."
"It was. Oh, we were very fierce at first—at least he was, and I fought for my side as hard as I could. He said Father was a selfish pig for wanting to close the Lane, and I said it was because of its use by the pigs that he wished to close it."
"Ha! ha! How did it end?"
"Oh, we agreed to disagree. I respect Captain Dean for his fight; but Father will win, of course. He always does."
"He won't win this time, Miss Colton."
"Why not? Oh, I actually forgot I was talking to the head and front of the opposition. So you think he will not win, Mr. Paine?"
"I am sure of it. He cannot close that Lane until I sell it, and I shall not sell."
She regarded me thoughtfully, her chin upon her hand.
"It would be odd if he should not, after all," she said. "He prides himself on having his own way. It would be strange if he should be beaten down here, after winning so often in New York. Your mother told me something of your feeling in the matter, Mr. Paine. Father has offered you a good price for the land, hasn't he?"
"He has offered me a dozen times what it is worth."
"Yes. He does not count money when he has set his heart upon anything. And you refused?"
"But Nellie Dean says the town also wished to buy and you refused its offer, too."
"You don't seem to care for money, either, Mr. Paine. Are all Cape Cod people so unmercenary? Or is it that you all have money enough—. . . Pardon me. That was impolite. I spoke without thinking."
"Oh, never mind. I am not sensitive—on that point, at least."
"But I do mind. And I am sorry I said it. And I should like to understand. I see why the townspeople do not want the Lane closed. But you have not lived here always. Only a few years, so Miss Dean says. She said, too, that that Mr. Taylor, the cashier, was almost the only intimate friend you have made since you came. Others would like to be friendly, but you will not permit them to be. And, yet for these people, mere acquaintances, you are sacrificing what Father would call a profitable deal."
"Not altogether for them. I can't explain my feeling exactly. I know only that to sell them out and make money—and heaven knows I need money—at their expense seems to me dead wrong."
"Then why don't you sell to THEM?"
"I don't know. Unless it was because to refuse your father's offer and accept a lower one seemed a mean trick, too. And I won't be bullied into selling to anyone. I guess that is it, as much as anything."
"My! how stubborn you must be."
"I don't know why I have preached this sermon to you, Miss Colton, your sympathies in the fight are with your father, naturally."
"Oh, no, they are not."
I almost dropped the rod.
"Not—with—" I repeated.
"Not altogether. They are with you, just at present. If you had sold—if you had given in to Father, feeling as you do, I should not have any sympathy with you at all. As it is—"
"As it is?" I asked eagerly—too eagerly. I should have done better to pretend indifference.
"As it is," she answered, lightly, "I respect you as I would any sincere fighter for a losing cause. And I shall probably feel some sympathy for you after the cause is lost. Excuse my breaking in on your sermon, provided it is not finished, but—I think you have a bite, Mr. Paine."
I had, very much of a bite. The minnow on my hook had been forgotten and allowed to sink to the bottom, and a big pout had swallowed it, along with the hook and a section of line. I dragged the creature out of the water and performed a surgical operation, resulting in the recovery of my tackle.
"There!" I exclaimed, in disgust. "I think I have had enough fishing for one day. Suppose we call it off. Unless you would like to try, Miss Colton."
I made the offer by way of a joke. She accepted it instantly.
"May I?" she cried, eagerly. "I have been dying to ever since I came.
"But—but you will get wet."
"No matter. This is an old suit."
It did not look old to my countrified eyes, but I protested no more. There was a rock a little below where we then were, one of the typical glacial boulders of the Cape—lying just at the edge of the water and projecting out into it. I helped her up on to this rock and baited her hook with shrimp.
"Shall I cast for you?" I asked.
"No indeed. I can do it, thank you."
She did, and did it well. Moreover, the line had scarcely straightened out in the water when it was savagely jerked, the pole bent into a half-circle, and out of the foaming eddy beneath its tip leaped the biggest bass I had seen that day, or in that pond on any day.
"By George!" I exclaimed. "Can you handle him? Shall I—"
She did not look at me, but I received my orders, nevertheless.
"Please don't! Keep away!" she said sharply.
For nearly fifteen minutes she fought that fish, in and out among the pads, keeping the line tight, handling him at least as well as I could have done. I ran for the landing net and, as she brought her captive up beside the rock, reached forward to use it. But she stopped me.
"No," she said, breathlessly, "I want to do this all myself."
It took her several more minutes to do it, and she was pretty well splashed, when at last, with the heavy net dragging from one hand and the rod in the other, she sprang down from the rock. Together we bent over the fish.
"A four-pounder, if he is an ounce," said I. "I congratulate you, Miss Colton."
"Poor thing," she mused. "I am almost sorry he did not get away. He IS a beauty, isn't he! Now I am ready to go home."
That journey home was a strange experience to me. She rode Don and bore the lunch basket and the net before her on the saddle. I walked alongside, carrying the rod, boots, and the fish in the otherwise empty bait pail. The sunshine, streaming through the leaves of the arching boughs overhead, dappled the narrow, overgrown paths with shifting blotches of light and shadow. Around us was the deep, living green of the woods, the songs of birds, the chatter of red squirrels, and the scent of wild honeysuckle. And as we moved onward we talked—that is, she did most of the talking and I listened. Yet I must have talked more than I knew, because I remember expressing opinions concerning books and operas and pictures, subjects I had not discussed for years except occasionally with Mother, and then only because she was still interested in them. I seemed, somehow, to have become a different, a younger man, under the influence of these few hours with the girl I had professed to hate so cordially. Our companionship—perfectly meaningless as it was, the mere caprice of an idle day on her part—had rejuvenated me. During that homeward walk I forgot myself entirely, forgot that I was Ros Paine, the country loafer; forgot, too, that she was the only child of the city millionaire, that we had, or could have, nothing in common. She, also, seemed to forget, and we chatted together as unconsciously and easily as if we had known each other all our lives.
Yet it may be that her part in the conversation was not altogether without a purpose. She led me to speak of Denboro and its people, of how they lived, and of the old days of sailing ships and deep sea skippers. George Taylor's name was mentioned and I praised him highly, telling of his rise from poor boy to successful man, as we rated success locally.
"He manages that bank well," I declared. "Everyone says so. And, from what I have seen of his management, I know it to be true."
"How do you know?" she asked.
"Because I have had some experience in banking myself. I—"
I stopped short. My tongue was running away with me. She did not ask the question which I dreaded and expected. Instead she said, looking down at me:
"You are a loyal friend, aren't you, Mr. Paine."
"I have reason to be loyal to George," I answered, with feeling.
"Are you as loyal to yourself?"
I looked up at her in surprise.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I have been trying to understand you, Mr. Paine. Trying to get the answer to the puzzle. In one way I think I have it. I understand your attitude in the Lane affair and I think I know why you came to Denboro and are staying here."
I stopped short. "You—you know THAT?" I cried.
"I think I do. You believe that your mother needs you and you will not leave her. That is your reason for living here, I think. But, in another way, I cannot understand you at all."
She spoke to the horse and we moved on again. I waited for her to continue, but she was silent.
"How? What is the other way! The way in which you cannot understand me?" I asked.
"Shall I tell you? Do you wish me to be perfectly frank?"
"I cannot understand how a man such as you seem to be, young, educated, and with life before him, can be content to do as you do, spend your time in fishing, or sailing, or shooting. To have no ambition at all. My father was a poor country boy, like your friend, Mr. Taylor, but he worked night and day until he became what he is now. And even now he works, and works hard. Oh, I am proud of him! Not because he is what he is, but because he has done it all himself. If I were a man I would have some purpose in life; I would do SOMETHING worth while if it were only to sell fish from a cart, like that old fellow with the queer name—what is it?—Oh, yes! Theophilus Newcomb."
I did not answer. She had said all that was necessary, and more. It was quite enough for me.
"There!" she observed, after a moment. "You asked me to tell you and I did. If you never speak to me again it will be exactly what I deserve. But I thought it and so I said it. Expressing my thoughts is one of my bad habits. . . . Oh, why, we are almost home, aren't we!"
We had come to the edge of the grove bordering Beriah Holt's pasture. The grove was on the west side of a little hill. Before us the pasture sloped away to Beriah's house and barn, with the road beyond it. And beyond that, in the distance, were the steeples and roofs of Denboro. Among them the gables and tower of the Colton mansion rose, conspicuous and costly.
She turned in the saddle. "I presume I may leave you now, Mr. Paine," she said. "Even you must admit that the rest of the way is plain sailing. Thank you for your hospitality and for your services as guide. I will send the basket and net over by one of the servants."
"I will take them now," I said, shortly.
"Very well, if you prefer. Here they are."
I took them from her.
"Good afternoon," she said. "And thanks once more for a very pleasant picnic."
"You are quite welcome, I'm sure. Thank you for your frank opinion of my—worthlessness. It was kind of you to express it."
The sarcasm was not lost upon her.
"I meant it as a kindness," she replied.
"Yes. And it was true enough, probably. Doubtless I shall derive great benefit from your—words of wisdom."
Her patience, evidently, was exhausted. She turned away. "Oh, that," she said, indifferently, "is your affair. I told you what I believed to be the truth, that was all. What you do is not likely to be of vast importance to me, one way or the other. Come, Don!"
Don cantered down the slope. I watched him and his rider disappear beyond the trees in the distance. Then I picked up my pail and other burdens and followed in their wake. The sun was behind a cloud. It had been a strange day with a miserable ending. I was furiously angry with her, but I was more angry with myself. For what she had told me WAS the truth, and I knew it.
I strode on, head down, through the village. People spoke to me, asking what luck I had had and where I had been, but I scarcely noticed them. As I reached the Corners and was passing the bank someone called my name. I glanced up and saw George Taylor descending the steps.
"Hold on, Ros," he hailed. "Wait a minute. What's your rush? Hold on!"
I halted reluctantly.
"Fishing again, I see," he observed, as he reached my side. "Any luck?"
"Fair," I told him.
"Yes." That I had not been alone since was no business of his.
"Humph! You ain't exactly what a fellow'd call talkative this afternoon, seems to me. Anything wrong?"
"I guess so."
"Well, so am I, but I ain't had your fun getting that way. Small and I have been at it night and day getting things in shape so he could leave. He's gone. Went this noon. And that ain't the worst of it; I haven't got anybody yet to take his place. I'll have to be cashier and bookkeeper too for a spell. There's applicants enough; but they don't suit. Guess likely you'll have to help me out, after all, Ros. The job is yours if you say the word."
He laughed as he said it. Even to him the idea of my working was a joke.
But the joke did not seem funny to me, just then. I walked on for some distance without a word. Then I asked a question.
"What is expected of a man in that position?" I asked.
"Expected? Why, plain bank bookkeeping—not much else at first. Yet there's a good chance for a likely fellow to be considerable more, in time. I need help in my part of the work. That's why I haven't hired any of the dozen or so who are after the place. What makes you ask? You don't know of a good man for me, do you, Ros?"
"When do you want him to begin?"
"To-morrow morning, if he satisfies me."
"Would I satisfy you?"
"You! Humph! Try me and see, that's all I'd ask."
"All right. I'll be on hand in the morning."
He stopped, looked at me, and then seized me by the arm.
"See here!" he cried, "I'm lost in the fog, I guess likely. What do you mean by that? Is it time to laugh—or what?"
"It may be; I don't know. But I take the bookkeeper's position in your bank. Now, good-by. Don't talk to me. I don't feel like talking."
I walked on. I had taken but a few steps when he overtook me.
"Ros," he said, "I ain't going to say but just one thing. If you meant what you said I'm the most tickled man on the Cape. But you ain't asked a word about the salary."
"I know it. I haven't asked because I don't care. I'll be on hand in the morning."
I left him standing there, and hurried down the Lower Road. As I had said to him, I did not feel like talking. I did not want even to see any one. I wanted to be let alone. But it was fated that I should not be, not yet. Sim Eldredge was waiting for me around the corner. He stepped out from behind the fence where he had been hidden.
"Ros!" he whispered. "Ros Paine! Wait. It's me, Sim. I want to ask you somethin'. Wan't that George Taylor you was speakin' to just now?"
"Yes," I answered, impatiently. "What of it?"
"Say, Ros, you and me ain't pulled that Colton trade off, but it ain't my fault. You ain't got no hard feelin's against me, I know. And I want you to do a little mite of favor for me. Will you?"
"What is it? If it has anything to do with the Lane, I tell you now that—"
"It ain't—it ain't. It's about that bookkeepin' job in the bank, Henry Small's place, the one he's just quit. I've got a third cousin, name of Josiah Badger, over to South Harniss. He's a smart young chap, and an A-1 accountant at figgers. He's been keepin' books down at the fish wharf—see? Now, he'd like that job and, bein' as you and George are so thick, I cal'lated maybe you'd sort of use your influence along of George, and—and get it for him. There ain't nothin' in it for me—that is, nothin' much. But I feel friendly toward Josiah and you know I like to do little kindnesses for folks. So—"
"There! there!" I interrupted. "It's no use, Sim. I can't help you."
"Why! yes you can."
"No, I can't. I don't know your cousin, and besides—well, you are too late. The place is filled."
Sim's expression changed. He looked surprised and crestfallen.
"Filled?" he exclaimed. "Why, no, 'tain't! If 'twas I'd have known it, wouldn't I? Who'd you hear had got it? Whoever you heard, 'tain't so."
"Yes, it is."
"How do you know? Who is it, then?"
I hesitated. Before noon of the next day every soul in Denboro would have heard the news. Eldredge might as well hear it now.
"I've taken the place myself," I said.
"You?" Sim actually forgot to whisper; he shouted the word. "YOU! Ha! ha! ha! Ros, quit your foolin'."
"I'm not fooling. I go to work in the bank to-morrow morning."
"But—Oh, my soul! You! Aw, I know better! Say, Ros, don't let's waste time like this. Fun's all right, but . . . My heavens to Betsy! YOU work for a livin'! If I believed that I'd believe anything. Tell me, now. Who has got that job? . . . Why don't you answer me?"
I answered him. "Shut up!" I said, fiercely. Then I vaulted the fence and set out for home across lots.
I heard the next day that Sim went back to the post-office and informed the gathering there that Ros Paine had taken to drinking.
"He was tight as a biled owl," declared Sim; "and ugly—don't talk! Wanted to fight me because I wouldn't believe he was goin' to work. Him! What in the everlastin' would HE want to work for? My heavens to Betsy!"
I think Taylor was almost as surprised as Eldredge had been, when, at half-past eight the following morning, I appeared at the bank. He was already at his desk and, when he looked up and saw me, he whistled.
"Whew!" he exclaimed. "So. I didn't dream it, after all. You're here, ain't you."
"I am here," I answered, opening the gate and stepping in behind the rail.
"Going to take it back and say you never said it?"
"Come to go to work? Really?"
"That is my intention, unless you have changed your mind."
"Not me. It ain't likely. But, Ros, I—sit down a minute and let's talk. What are you doing this for?"
It was a question I had been asking myself at intervals during a restless night. Now I gave the only truthful answer.
"I don't know," I said.
"You don't know!"
"No. And I don't seem to care. Suppose we don't talk about it. I am here, and I am ready to begin work. That's enough, isn't it?"
"Why, no; not quite. You're not doing it just to help me out?"
"You don't need to work. You've got money enough."
"No, I haven't. But money isn't my reason. I haven't any reason. Now show me the books, will you?"
"Don't be in a hurry. What does your mother think about it?"
"I haven't told her yet. Time enough for that when I know that I really mean it and you know that I am competent to fill the position. George, if you keep on cross-examining me I am likely to quit before I begin. I don't know why I am doing this, but just now I think I am going to do it if I can. However, I am not sure. So you had better be careful."
"Humph! What did you catch up at that pond yesterday? I never saw a day's fishing make such a difference in a man in my life. . . . All right, Ros. All right. I won't pester you. Too glad to have you here for that. Now about the salary."
"Before we speak of that there is one more point. How about your directors? Dean and the rest? Do they know you offered me the position?"
"Sure thing! They put the whole affair in my hands. They'll be satisfied. And as for Cap'n Jed—why, he was the one that suggested hiring you in the first place."
"Captain Jed! Captain Jed Dean! HE suggested it?"
"Yup. In a way, he did. You may not know it, Ros, but you've made a good deal of a hit with the old man. He ain't been used to having anybody stand up to him as you have. As a general thing Denboro jumps when he snaps the whip. You didn't, and he couldn't understand why. He is the kind that respects anything they can't understand. Then, too, Nellie likes you, and she's his idol, you know. Ah hum!"
He sighed and, for a moment, seemed to forget me altogether. I reminded him by another question.
"But why should the captain think of me for this place?" I asked. "Why should he dream that I would take it? I gave you no encouragement."
"I don't know as he did dream it. But he and I were speaking of you and he said he'd like to do something to show you what the town thought of your holding out against Colton. That tickled him down to the keel. I said you'd be a first-class helper to me in this bank, that I heard you knew something about banking—"
"It's all right. I only mentioned that I heard rumors that you were in a city bank somewhere at one time. He didn't ask any more and I shouldn't have told him if he had. But the idea pleased him, I could see that. 'Why don't you try to get him?' says he. 'Maybe the days of miracles ain't past. Perhaps even he'd condescend to work, if the right job came his way.'"
"So that's what you call his suggesting me, do you? Humph!"
"Well, I told him about it last night, when I was up to see Nellie, and he was pleased as Punch. Surprised, of course, but pleased. He's practically the whole board, as far as settling things is concerned, so it is all right. He ain't the worst friend you've got, by a long shot."
I imagined that I understood what Captain Jed's "friendship" meant. My accepting the bank position was one more bond binding me to his side in the Shore Lane battle. And, so long as I was under Taylor's eye and his own, I could not be subject to the Colton influence.
George and I discussed the question of salary, if his offer and my prompt acceptance might be called a discussion. The pay was not large to begin with, but it was more than I had a right to expect. And I was perfectly honest when I said that money was not the consideration which led me to make the sudden change in my habit of life. I was sick of idleness; I had longed for something to occupy my life and time; I might as well be doing this as anything; Taylor's offer had appealed to me when he first made it; these were the excuses I evolved for my own satisfaction and I tried to believe them real. But one reason I would not admit, even in my thoughts, as a possibility. It was not that girl, or anything she had said, which influenced me. No! over and over again—no.
Sam Wheeler, the young fellow who acted as assistant bookkeeper and messenger, came in, and Taylor, after showing me the books and giving me a few hints as to what my duties would be, turned me over to him for further instruction. I found I needed but little. The pages, with their rows of figures, seemed like old friends. I almost enjoyed poring over them. Was it possible that I was going to like this new venture of mine?
Before noon I was fairly certain of it. The work in a country bank is different from that in the large city institutions, in that it is by no means as specialized. I found that, later on, I should be expected to combine the work of teller with that of bookkeeper. And this, too, seemed natural. I worked as steadily as I could, considering interruptions, and the forenoon was over almost before I knew it.
The interruptions, however, were numerous and annoying; some of them, too, were amusing. Depositors came, saw me behind the bars of the window, and, after expressing their astonishment, demanded to know what I was doing there. If I had answered all the questions put to me by the curious Denboroites I should have found time for little else. But Taylor helped me by shooing the curious ones away. "Don't bother the new hand," he said. "If you want to know particulars ask me. Anything I don't tell you you can read in next week's Item. This is a bank, not a question box."
Captain Elisha Warren came in and was as surprised as the rest. After an interview with the cashier he returned to my window and requested me to open up. When I did so he reached in a big hand and seized mine.
"Shake, Ros," he said, heartily. "I'm glad for the bank and I'm gladder still for you. Come hard at fust, does it?"
"A little," I confessed. "Not as hard as I expected, though."
"Fust day or two out of port is always the toughest. You'll get your sea legs on pretty soon. Then you'll be glad you shipped, I cal'late."
"I hope so," I answered, rather dubiously.
"I know you will. There's nothin' so tiresome as doin' nothin'. I know, because that's been my job for quite a spell. Seems sometimes as if I'd have a fit, I get so sick of loafin'."
His idea of a "loaf" was rising at six and weeding his garden, superintending the labor on his cranberry swamps or about his barns and grounds, attending bank and Selectmen's meetings, and generally keeping busy until sunset.
"I tell Abbie, my housekeeper," he continued, "that if 'twan't for my age I believe I'd go to sea again just to keep from fallin' apart with dry rot. I asked her if she'd noticed how my timbers creaked, and she said I didn't keep still long enough for her to notice anything. Ho! ho! Nothin' makes her more provoked than for me to mention gettin' old or goin' to sea. All the same, I envy you your youth, Ros. You've got your life afore you, and I'm glad to see that you're goin' to make somethin' of it. I always said you'd wake up if somebody give you a punch. Who punched you, Ros?"
My reply was non-committal.
"Better mind my own business, hadn't I," he observed. "All right, I will. No offense meant, you understand. But, you see, I've never believed that work was the cuss of mankind, like some folks, and no matter how much money a young feller's got I think he's better off doin' somethin'. That's the gospel accordin' to Elisha. Well, good luck and a pleasant v'yage. See you again soon. Say," turning back, "keep an eye on George, will you? Folks in love are l'ble to be absent-minded, they tell me, and I should not want him to be absent with any of my money. Hear that, do you, George?"
Taylor, who was standing near, laughed and walked away. A moment later I saw him looking out of the window with the same strange expression on his face which I had noticed several times before when his approaching marriage was hinted at. Something was troubling him, that was plain. He loved Nellie devotedly, I knew; yet he obviously did not like to hear the marriage mentioned.
Sim Eldredge was one of the first visitors to the bank, but his visit was a short one. He entered the door, walked straight to the teller's window and peered through the bars. I heard him catch his breath.
"Good morning, Sim," said I. "What can I do for you?"
"Do?" he repeated. "Do for me? Nothin'—nothin', 'special. You—you meant it, then?"
"I told you I did."
"My soul!" was all the answer he made. Then he turned and walked out.
At about eleven o'clock I was half-way through the addition of a column of figures when I heard some one say, "Well, by time!" with such anguished fervor that it was almost like a prayer for help. I looked up. Lute Rogers was staring in at me, open-mouthed and horror-stricken.
"Hello, Lute!" I said.
Lute swallowed hard.
"They told me 'twas so," he stammered. "They said so and—and I laughed at 'em. Ros, you ain't, be you?"
"Goin' to stay in there and—and take Henry's job?"
"You be! And you never said nothin' to nobody? To Dorinda? Or even Comfort?"
"No; not yet."
"Nor to me. To ME, by time! You let them fellers at the store make a fool of me—"
"No one could do that, Lute. I have told you so often."
"And you let them know it afore I did. And me livin' right in the house with you! By time! I—I—"
"There, there, Lute! don't cry. I'll tell you all about it when I come home for dinner."
"Yes, I should think you might do that much. Treatin' your own family like—why did you tell Sim Eldredge?"
"Sim asked me and so I told him, that was all. Don't stand there fidgeting. Run along home, there's a good fellow. Mr. Taylor has his eye on you already."
Lute glanced apprehensively toward the cashier's desk and turned to go.
"Well!" he exclaimed, "I've said you was crazy more'n once, that's some satisfaction. Say! can I tell 'em to home?"
I hesitated. "You may tell Dorinda if you like," I answered. "But I prefer to tell Mother, myself."
George rose from his desk just then and Lute hurried to the door. I smiled. I imagined his arrival in our kitchen and how he would explode the sensational news upon his unsuspecting wife.
But I was not altogether calm, though I did my best to appear so, when I entered that kitchen at a quarter past twelve. Lute was seated in a chair by the window, evidently watching and waiting. He sprang up as I entered.
"Set down," ordered Dorinda, who was taking a clam pie from the oven. She merely nodded when I came in. Dorinda often spoke in meeting against "sinful pride"; yet she had her share of pride, sinful or not. She would not ask questions or deign to appear excited, not she.
"But Dorinda," cried her husband, "it's Ros. Don't you see?"
"You set down, Lute Rogers. Well," turning to me, "dinner's ready, if you are."
"I shall be in a few minutes," I answered. "I want to see Mother first."
Breaking the news to Mother was a duty which I dreaded. But it turned out to be not dreadful at all. Mother was surprised, of course, but she did not offer a single objection. Her principal feeling seemed to be curiosity as to my reasons for the sudden change.
"Of course, Roscoe, if you are happier I shall be, too," she said. "I know it must have been very dull for you here. My conscience has troubled me not a little all these years. I realize that a man, a young man like you, needs an interest in life; he wants something more than the care and companionship of a useless creature like me."
"Mother, how often have I told you not to speak like that."
"But he does. Many times, when you and I have been here together, I have been on the point of urging you to leave me and go back to the world and take your place in it. More than once, you remember, dear, I have hinted at such a thing, but you have always chosen not to understand the hints, and I have been so weak and selfish that I have not pressed them. I am glad you have done this, if it seems right to you. But does it? Are you sure?"
"I think so, Mother. I confess I am not sure."
"This country bank is a pretty small place, isn't it? Not big enough for my boy to prove his worth in."
"It is quite big enough for that. That doesn't require a Rothschild's establishment."
"But your decision must have been a very sudden one. You did not mention that you thought of such a thing. Not even to me."
"It was sudden," I answered. "I took the position on the spur of the moment."
"But why? What led you to do it?"
"I don't know, Mother."
"What influenced you? Has any one urged you?"
"George Taylor offered me the place some time ago. He urged me."
"No one else?"
I avoided the issue. "You don't mind, then, Mother," I said. "You are willing that I should try the experiment?"
"I am glad, if it pleases you. And you must let me say this now, Roscoe, because it is true and I mean it. If another and better opportunity comes to you, one that might take you away from Denboro—and from me—for a time, of course, I want you to promise me that you will not refuse it on my account. Will you promise?"
"No. Of course I shan't promise any such thing. Is it likely that I would leave you, Mother?"
"I know that you would not leave me unless I were willing for you to go. I know that, Roscoe. But I am much better and stronger than I was. I shall never be well—"
"Don't say that," I interrupted, hastily.
"But I must say it, because it is true. I shall never be well, but I am strong enough now to bear the thought of your leaving me and when the time comes I shall insist upon your doing so. I am glad we have had this talk, dear. I am glad, too, that you are going to be busy once more in the way you like and ought to be. You must tell me about your work every day. Now go, because your dinner is ready and, of course, you must be getting back to the bank. Kiss me, Boy."
And as I bent over her she put her arms about my neck.
"Boy," she whispered, "I know there is some reason for your doing this, a reason which you have not told me. You will tell me some day, won't you?"
I straightened hurriedly and tried to laugh. "Of course I'll tell you, Mother," I replied. "If there is anything to tell."
The clam pie was on the table in the dining-room and Dorinda was seated majestically before it. Lute was fidgeting in his chair.
"Here he is," he exclaimed, as I joined the pair at the table. "Ros, how did you ever come to do it?"
His wife squelched him, as usual. "If Roscoe's got anything to tell," she observed, with dignity, "he'll tell it without your help or anybody else's. If he ain't, he won't. This pie's colder than it ought to be, but that isn't my fault."
As I ate I told them of my sudden determination to become a laboring man. I gave the reasons that I had given Mother.
"Um-hm," said Dorinda.
"But I can't understand," pleaded Lute. "You don't need to work, and I've sort of took a pride in your not doin' it. If I was well-off, same as you be, I bet George Taylor'd have to whistle afore I wore out MY brains in his old bank."
"He wouldn't have time to whistle more'n once," was Dorinda's comment.
"Now, Dorinda, what kind of talk is that? Wouldn't have time to whistle? You do say more things without any sense to 'em! Just talk to hear yourself, I cal'late. What are you grinnin' at, Roscoe?"
"I can't imagine, Lute. This clam pie is a triumph. May I have another helping, Dorinda?"
Dorinda did not answer, but the second helping was a liberal one. She was so quiet and the glances she gave me from time to time were so odd that I began to feel uneasy. I was fairly sure that she approved of my new venture, but why did she look at me like that?
"Well," said I, looking at my watch and rising, "what do you think of it? Am I doing right?"
Lute leaned back in his chair. "There's consider'ble to be said on that subject," he announced. "Work, as a general thing, I consider all right; I've told you that afore. But when it comes to—"
"What do you think, Dorinda?" I interrupted.
Dorinda stirred her tea.
"Think?" she repeated. "I think . . . When's that Colton girl comin' to call on Comfort again?"
I had taken my hat from the hook. Now, with it in my hand, I turned and faced her.
"How should I know that?" I demanded. "That's a trifle off the subject, isn't it?"
"Um-hm," said Dorinda. "Maybe 'tis."
I went out hurriedly.
Within the week I was at home in my new position. The strangeness of regular hours and regular employment wore away with surprising rapidity. There were, of course, mornings when sea and sky and the freshness of outdoors tempted me and I wondered whether or not I had been foolish to give up my fine and easy life. But these periods of temptation were shorter and less frequent as I became more and more familiar with my duties and with the routine of the bank. I found myself taking a greater interest in the institution and, to my astonishment, I was actually sorry when Saturday came. It seemed odd enough to once more have money in my pocket which I had earned. It was not a great amount, of course, but I felt it to be mine. Yes, there was no doubt about it, I had done the right thing, and was glad. I was grateful to Taylor for having given me the opportunity. Perhaps I should have been grateful to the person whose brutal and impertinent frankness had piqued me into grasping that opportunity, but I was not.
She made her second call upon Mother two days after our impromptu picnic at Seabury's Pond. I heard all about it when I came home that afternoon. It appeared that she had brought more flowers and a fresh supply of books. She had remained even longer than on her first visit and she and Mother had talked about almost everything under the sun. One topic, however, had not been discussed, a fact which my guarded questions made certain. She, like myself, had said nothing concerning the day in the woods.
"I told her of your consenting to help Mr. Taylor in his dilemma," said Mother.
"Did you?" said I. "It was kind of you to put it in that way."
"That was the truthful way of putting it, wasn't it? She seemed very much interested."
"Indeed. And surprised, I presume."
"Why, yes, I think so. She seemed surprised at first; then she laughed; I could not understand why. She has a very pleasant laugh, hasn't she?"
"I have never noticed." This was untrue.
"She has. She is a charming girl. I am sorry you were not here when she called. I told her you would be home soon and asked her to wait, but she would not."
"I am glad she didn't."
"I am, Mother. That young lady comes here to see you merely because she has nothing else to do just now. I shouldn't accept too many favors from her."
Mother said I was unreasonable and prejudiced and I did not argue the point. Lute and Dorinda discussed the caller at the supper table until I was constrained to leave the room. Mabel Colton might amuse herself with Mother and the two members of our household whom she had described as "characters," she might delude them into believing her thoughtful and sympathetic and without false pride, but I knew better. She had insulted me. She had, in so many words, told me that I was lazy and worthless, just as she might have told her chauffeur or one of the servants. That it was true made no difference. Would she have spoken in that way to—to Victor Carver, for instance? Hardly. She was just what I had thought her at first, a feminine edition of Victor, with more brains than he possessed.
Captain Jed Dean came into the bank the third day after my installation as bookkeeper and teller. I was alone in the director's room, going over some papers, and he entered and shook hands with me. The old fellow professed delight at my presence there.
"George tells me you're takin' hold fust-rate," he said. "That's good. I'm glad to hear it."
"Why?" I asked. There was a trace of his old pomposity in the speech—or I imagined there was—and I chose to resent it. These were the days when I was in the mood to resent almost anything.
"Why?" he repeated, in surprise. "What do you mean?"
"Why are you glad?" I said. "I can't see what difference it makes to you whether I succeed or not."
He regarded me with a puzzled expression, but, instead of taking offense, he laughed.
"You've got a chip on your shoulder, ain't you, Ros?" he observed. "Workin' you too hard at the start, are we?"
"No," I answered, curtly.
"Then what is the matter?"
"Why, nothing, unless it is that everyone I meet seems to take such a great interest in my being here. I believe all of Denboro talks of nothing else."
"Not much else, I shouldn't wonder. But that's to be expected, ain't it? Everybody's glad you're makin' good."
"Humph! They all seem to regard that as the eighth wonder of the world. The position doesn't require a marvel of intelligence; almost any one with a teaspoonful of brains could fill it."
"Why no, they couldn't. But that's nothin' to do with it. I see what's the matter with you, Ros. You think all hands are knocked on their beam ends because you've gone to work. Some of 'em are, that's a fact, and you can't blame 'em much, considerin' how long you've lived here without doin' anything. But all of 'em that amount to a three-cent piece are glad, and the rest don't count anyway. You've made a good many friends in this town lately, son."
I smiled bitterly. "Friends," I said.
"Why, yes, friends. And friends are worth havin', especially if you make 'em without beggin' for their friendship. I give in that you've surprised some of us. We didn't know that you had it in you. But your standin' up to old Colton was a fine thing, and we appreciated it."
"That is because you were against his grabbing the Lane."
"What of it? And 'twan't that altogether. I, for one, ain't complainin' because you stood up to me and wouldn't sell to the town. By the way, Tim Hallet's gang haven't bothered you lately, have they?"
"No. And I advise them not to."
He chuckled. "I heard you advised 'em to that effect," he said. "I ain't complainin' at that, either, even though I knew what they was up to and thought 'twas more or less of a joke. But I liked the way you fired 'em out of there, not carin' a tinker's darn who was behind 'em. So long as a man stands square in his boots and don't knuckle to anybody he won't lose anything with Jed Dean. That's me!"
"You ought to like Colton, then," I said. "He hasn't knuckled, much."
Captain Jed grinned. "Well," he said, slowly, "I don't object to that in him. He seems to be a fighter and that's all right. Maybe if I was one of his tribe in New York I should like him. But I ain't. And you ain't, Ros. We're both of us country folks, livin' here, and he's a city shark buttin' into the feedin' grounds. He wants to hog the whole place and you and I say he shan't. I'm thankful to him for one thing: his comin' here has waked you up, and it's goin' to make a man of you, or I miss my guess."
I did not answer.
"You mustn't get mad because I talk this way," he went on. "I'm old enough to be your dad, Ros Paine, and I know what I'm talkin' about. I never took much of a shine to you in the old days. You was too much of what the story books call a 'gentleman' to suit me. I've had to scratch all my life for what I've got, but I've got it. When a young, able feller like you was contented to loaf around as you did and take no interest in nothin', I, naturally, figgered he was no-account. I see now I was wrong. All you needed was somethin' to stir you up and set you goin'. KEEP goin', that's my advice to you. And so long as you do, and don't bend when the pressure gets hard, you'll be somebody afore you die. And the friends you've made'll stand back of you."
"How about the enemies I have made?"
"Enemies? I suppose likely you have made some enemies, but what of it? I've made enemies all my life. It ain't because I'm popular here in Denboro that I'm what I am. Now is it?"
The truthful answer would have been no. Captain Dean was not popular, but he was respected even by the many who disliked and disagreed with him. I hesitated, trying to think what to say.
"You know 'tain't that," he said. "Popularity I never had, though it's a pleasant enough thing and sometimes I wish—But there, this ain't experience meetin'. I'm glad you're here in this bank. You're smart, and George says you are worth more than Henry Small ever was, even so early. If you really are what it begins to look as if you are I'm glad for Denboro. Maybe there'll be somebody besides George fit to run this town after I'm gone."
I smiled. The last remark was so characteristic that it was funny. He was turning away, but he noticed the smile and turned back.