"That's a joke, hey?" he asked.
"Captain," I said, "you are not consistent. When you and I first talked about the Lane you said that you would not blame me if I closed it. If it was yours you wouldn't have Tom, Dick, and Harry driving fish carts through it."
"Did I say that?"
"Yes. And you said, on another occasion, that anyone would sell anything if they were offered money enough."
"Humph! Well, sometimes I say 'most anything but my prayers. Matildy says I forget them pretty often, but I tell her her Friday night speeches are long enough to make up. Maybe I meant what I said to you at those times, Ros. I shouldn't wonder if I did. But 'twas a lie just the same. There are things I wouldn't sell, of course. Nellie, my daughter's one of 'em. She's goin' to get a good husband in George here, but her happiness means more to me than money. She's one of the things I wouldn't sell. And my Selectman's job is another. I fought for that, not so much for the honor, or whatever you call it, but because—well, because I wanted to show 'em that I could get it if I set out to. I don't presume likely you can understand that feelin'."
"I think I can," I answered. "Mr. Colton gave about the same reason for his determination to close the Lane. You and he seem to be a good deal alike, after all."
He looked at me from beneath his bushy brows. His mouth twisted in a grim smile.
"Say, son," he said, "if I hadn't been so free with my proclamations about bein' your friend you and me would have a settlement for that little bit of talk. The Emperor and me alike! Ugh!"
The next afternoon he came in again and asked me to step outside the railing. He had something to say to me, he declared.
We sat down together on the settee by the wall.
"Ros," he said, in a low tone, "have you had any new offer for your property? Not from Colton or the town, but from anybody else?"
"No," I answered. "What do you mean?"
"You ain't heard anything from a Boston firm claimin' to represent the Bay Shore Development Company, or some such?"
"No. What sort of a company is that?"
"I don't know; that is, I don't know much about it. But there's talk driftin' 'round that a Boston syndicate is cal'latin' to buy up all the shore front land from South Ostable to the Bayport line and open it up for summer house lots. The name is the Bay Shore Development Company, or somethin' like that. You ain't heard from 'em, then?"
"Not a word. Where did your information come from?"
"From nobody in particular. It just seems to be in the air. Alvin Baker heard it over to Ostable. The feller that told him got it from somebody else, who got it from another somebody, and so on. There's talk about good prices bein' offered and, accordin' to Alvin, Ostable folks are pretty excited. Elnathan Mullet, who owns that strip below your house, knows somethin' about it, I think. I shouldn't wonder if he'd had an offer, or a hint, or somethin'. But Elnathan's mouth shuts tighter than a muskrat trap and I couldn't get nothin' out of him. He just looked knowin' and that was all. But, if it's so, it may mean a heap to Denboro."
I was considering the news when he spoke again.
"It might mean a lot to you, Ros," he whispered.
"Why, this way: If this concern offered you enough money you might sell out to them, mightn't you? Sell all your place, I mean; you could get another one easy enough. You ain't particular about livin' by the shore."
"But—you urge me to SELL!" I exclaimed. "Sell the Shore Lane with the rest?"
"Why not? You wouldn't be sellin' to Colton. And, if this development scheme is what they say it is, there'll be roads cut through all along shore. The town could use any of 'em; at least that arrangement might be made. Think it over, Ros. If they do offer and offer enough, I'd sell, if I was you. Say! that would be a reef under His Majesty's bows, hey? Jolt him some, I cal'late."
I did not answer. This was a new possibility. Of course his reason for advising my selling was plain enough, but, leaving the Coltons entirely aside, the idea was not without allurement. The town's convenience in the matter of a road might be considered, just as he said. And my scruples against selling at a profit were, after all, based upon that feature.
"You think it over," he counseled. "Don't say nothin' to nobody, but just think—and wait. I'll keep my eye to wind'ard and see what I can find out. I tell you honest, Ros, I'll feel safer when I know old Imperial's game's blocked for good and all."
Old Imperial himself made his appearance before closing hours. I looked up from my work to see him standing by the window. He had not expected to see me there—evidently his daughter had not considered Mother's news of sufficient importance to repeat—and, at first, he did not recognize me.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Colton," said I.
He nodded. "Cash this for me, will you," he said, pushing a check through the opening. "What? Hello! What in blazes are you doing in there?"
"I am employed here now," I answered.
"Humph! how long since?"
"Ten days, or such matter."
"What are you doing in a bank?"
"Banking was my business, at one time."
"Thought you hadn't any business."
"I haven't had any, for some years. Now I have. How do you wish this money? In tens and fives?"
"Yes. Nothing bigger. Down here it restricts the circulation if you spring a twenty dollar bill on them. So you've taken to banking? I was thinking of corraling you for a gunning trip one of these days. Now it's all off, I suppose."
"It looks that way. Sorry I am to be deprived of the pleasure."
"Humph!" Then, with one of his sudden changes, "How big a business does this concern do? What do your deposits amount to?"
I gave him the figures, as printed in the yearly statement. He made no comment. Instead he observed, "You haven't been around to accept that offer of mine yet, Paine."
"Not yet," I answered.
"Suppose I ought to raise it, now that you're a financier yourself. However, I shan't."
"I haven't asked you to."
He smiled. "No, you haven't," he said. "Well, it is open—for a while. If I were you I'd accept it pretty soon."
"Meaning that I am not you, hey? I'm not. I haven't your high principles, Paine. Can't afford 'em. You're what they call a 'Progressive' in politics, too, aren't you?"
"Here is your money," I said, ignoring the question.
"I'll bet you are!" he declared, taking the bills. "I never saw one of you high-principled chaps yet that wasn't—until he got rich enough to be something else. Progress is all right, maybe, but I notice that you fellows pay for it and the rest of us get it. Just as I am going to get that land of yours."
"You haven't got it yet," I said, serenely. I had made up my mind that this time he should not provoke me into losing my temper.
He seemed to divine my determination. His eye twinkled. "You're improving, Paine," he observed. "I'll give you a piece of advice; it has cost me a good deal to learn, but I'll give it to you: Don't ever let the other fellow make you mad."
I remembered our first interview and I could not resist the temptation to retort.
"If my recollection is correct," I said, "you forgot that the first time we met."
He laughed aloud. "So I did," he admitted. "Maybe if I hadn't it would not cost me so much to get my own way in your case."
He walked out of the building. I heard one exclamation from behind and, turning, saw Sam Wheeler, my youthful assistant, staring at me.
"My—gosh!" exclaimed Sam, his tone a mixture of wonder and admiration, "I don't see how you dast to talk back to him like that, Ros. He'll sic the—the 'System' onto you, won't he?"
It was evident that Sam had been reading the magazines.
I heard no more from Captain Jed and nothing from the mysterious "Development Company" for the remainder of that week. But on Sunday, as I sat in the boat house, smoking my after dinner pipe and reading, Lute excitedly entered, followed by a well-dressed, smooth-shaven man of middle age, whom he introduced as Mr. Keene of Boston, "who's driven all the way from Ostable a-purpose to see you, Ros."
Mr. Keene shook hands with me cordially and apologized for intruding upon my day of rest. He intended returning to the city in the morning, he said, and, as he had a little matter to discuss with me, had taken the liberty of calling. "I shan't take more than half an hour of your time, Mr. Paine," he explained. "At least I feel certain that you and I can reach an agreement in that period. If I might be alone with you—"
This hint, evidently intended for Lute's benefit, was quite lost upon the last named individual, who had seated himself on the edge of the work bench and was listening with both ears. I was obliged to tell him that his presence was superfluous and request his returning to the house, which he reluctantly did, moving slowly and looking back with an expression of grieved disappointment. After he had gone I asked Mr. Keene what his "little matter" might be.
His reply was prompt and to the point. He gave me his card. He was, it seemed, junior partner in the firm of Barclay and Keene, real estate brokers and promoters, Milk Street, Boston. And, just now, he was acting as representative of the Bay Shore Development Company. "A concern of which, in spite of all our precautions and attempts at secrecy, you may, perhaps, have heard, Mr. Paine," he added, smiling.
I admitted that I had heard rumors concerning the company's existence. But, except for these very vague rumors, I knew nothing about it.
He expected that, he said, and was glad to give me further and complete information. In fact, that was his reason for coming so many miles to see me. If I would be good enough to listen he would tell me just what the Bay Shore Company was and what it contemplated doing.
I listened and he talked. According to him the Bay Shore syndicate—that is what it was, a syndicate of capitalists—represented one of the biggest real estate propositions ever conceived. Those behind it were awake to the possibilities of the Cape as a summer resort. Shore land, water front property in the vicinity, was destined to increase in value, provided it was properly exploited and developed. The company's idea was to do just that—exploit and develop.
"We've been quietly looking about," he continued, "and are all ready for the preliminaries. And naturally, the first preliminary is to secure the land to develop. You have some of that land, Mr. Paine. We know just how much, as we do the holdings of every other party we have approached or intend to approach. I am here to get your figures and, if possible, conclude the purchase of your property this afternoon. It is Sunday, of course," he added, with a good-humored laugh, "and contracts signed to-day are not legal; but we can make a verbal contract and the papers may be signed later. I will defer my departure until the afternoon train to-morrow for that purpose. Now name your figure, Mr. Paine."
Of course I had guessed what was coming. If I intended to sell at all here was my opportunity to do so—to, as Captain Jed expressed it, "block Colton's game" without sacrificing the principle for which I had fought, and make a good bit of money for myself. Another home near by could be secured, I had no doubt, and to it Mother might be safely and easily moved. Yet I hesitated to express even a qualified willingness.
"You appear to be certain that I will sell," I observed. "Isn't that taking a good deal for granted, Mr. Keene?"
He smiled—in fact he smiled almost too often to please me. There is such a thing as being too cordial and good-natured; and he was so very friendly on short acquaintance.
"I understand," he said. "I have heard about you, Mr. Paine. This, however, is a different matter. We are not hogs, Mr. Paine, but business men. If our plans go through, Denboro will be grateful to us and to you."
"IF they go through? I thought you were certain of their going through."
"Certainly, certainly. There is, of course, an 'if' in all human plans, but our particular 'if' is a small one. I hope you will name your figure now, at once. Don't be afraid. We are disposed to be liberal. And, understand, this is entirely a cash transaction. You shall have the money in one hand as you sign the contract with the other. Ha! ha! What is the price to be?"
But I would not name a price. I seemed to feel as unreasonably reluctant to close with the Bay Shore Development Company as I had been with Captain Jed or Colton.
"Shall I make a bid?" asked Keene.
"No, not yet at any rate. Tell me, this: Whose land have you already bought?"
He shook his head. "That, of course," he said, with the same gracious smile, "I can hardly tell even to you. Some of the deals are not yet closed, and, as a business man yourself, Mr. Paine, you—"
"I am not a business man," I interrupted, impatiently. "At least, not much of a one. You say there are capitalists behind your scheme. Who are they?"
He laid his hand on my knee. "Why, that," he said, "is a secret no one is supposed to know. Men—financiers such as we are proud to serve—permit their names to be known only when the corporation is ready to begin actual operations. That is natural enough. If I were to mention names—well, some of your Yankee neighbors would want to become millionaires before selling."
There was truth in this. I imagine that he guessed he had made an impression, for he went on to shout his praises of the company and the greatness of its plan. He talked and talked; in fact he talked too much. I did not like to hear him. I did not like HIM, that was the trouble. He was too smooth and voluble altogether. And he made a mistake in patting my knee.
"Very well," said I, rising from my chair; "I'll think it over."
He was plainly disappointed. "I don't wish to hurry you, of course," he said, not moving from his chair, "but we are anxious to close. This is to be cash, remember, and I stand ready to make an offer. I am sure we can reach an agreement, satisfactory to both sides, Mr. Paine."
"Perhaps, but I prefer to think the matter over before naming a price or hearing your offer."
As a matter of fact I did not intend to sell, or consider selling, until I had discussed the whole affair with Mother. But there was no need to tell him that.
"I am sorry, I confess," he said. "I hoped this particular deal might be closed. We have so many of these little details, Mr. Paine, and time is money. However, if you insist upon it, I presume the company will be willing to wait a few days."
"I am afraid it will have to."
"Very well, very well. I shall be down again in a day or two. Of course, waiting may have some effect upon the price. To-day I was empowered to . . . You don't care to hear? Very well. So glad to have met you, Mr. Paine. Of course you will not mention the subject of our interview to anyone. Business secrets, you know. Thank you, thank you. And I will see you again—Thursday, shall we say?"
I refused to say Thursday, principally because he had said it first. I suggested Saturday instead. He agreed, shook hands as if I were an old friend from whom he parted with regret, and left me.
No, I did not like Mr. Keene. He was too polite and too familiar. And, as I thought over his words, the whole prospectus of the Bay Shore Development Company seemed singularly vague. The proposal to buy my land was definite enough, but the rest of it was, apparently, very much in the air. There was too much secrecy about it. No one was to tell anyone anything. I was glad I had insisted upon time for consideration. I intended to consider thoroughly.
When I left the boat house I did not go directly home, but wandered along the beach. I had puzzled my brain with Mr. Keene and his errand until I determined not to puzzle it any longer that day. If my suspicions were unfounded and existed merely because of my dislike of the Bay Shore Company's representative, then they were not worth worry. If they were well founded I had almost a week in which to discover the fact. I would dismiss the whole matter from my thoughts. The question as to whether or not I would sell the land at all to anybody, which was, after all, the real question, I resolved to put off answering until I had had my talk with Mother.
I walked on by the water's edge until I reached the Lane; turning into that much coveted strip of territory I continued until I came opposite the Colton mansion, where, turning again, I strolled homeward by the path through the grove. Unconsciously my wandering thoughts strayed to Mabel Colton. It was here that I had met her on two occasions. I had an odd feeling that I should meet her here again, that she was here now. I had no reason for thinking such a thing, certainly the wish was not father to the thought, but at every bend in the path, as the undergrowth hid the way, I expected, as I turned the corner, to see her coming toward me.
But the path was, save for myself, untenanted. I was almost at its end, where the pines and bushes were scattering and the field of daisies, now in full bloom, began, when I heard a slight sound at my left. I looked in the direction of the sound and saw her. She was standing beneath a gnarled, moss-draped old pine by the bluff edge, looking out over the bay.
I stopped, involuntarily. Then I moved on again, as noiselessly as I could. But at my first step she turned and saw me. I raised my hat. She bowed, coldly, so it seemed to my supersensitive imagination, and I replaced the hat and continued my walk. I thought I heard the bushes near which she stood rustle as if she had moved, but I did not look back.
Then, close behind me, I heard her voice.
"Mr. Paine," she said.
I turned. She had followed me and was standing in the path, a bit out of breath, as if she had hurried. I waited for her to speak, but she did not.
"Good afternoon, Miss Colton," I said, awkwardly. Some one had to speak, we could not stand staring at each other like that.
She said "Good afternoon," also. Then there was another interval of silence.
"You—you wished to speak to me?" I stammered.
"I DID speak to you," with significant emphasis on the "did." "I thought you might, possibly, be interested to know that Don and I reached home safely the other day."
Considering that she had called upon Mother since, it seemed to me that my knowledge of her reaching home safely might have been taken for granted; but I said:
"I am very glad to hear it, Miss Colton."
"We had no difficulty in finding the way after you left us."
The way being almost straight, and over the main traveled roads, this, too, was fairly obvious.
"I felt sure you would have no trouble—after I left you," I answered, with a significant emphasis of my own.
She did not reply and, as I had nothing further to say, I waited for her to continue, or to break off the interview. She did neither, but stood, as if irresolute, looking down and stirring with her foot the leaves at the edge of the path. Suddenly she looked up.
"Mr. Paine," she said, "you are making it hard for me to say what I intended. But I think I should say it, and so I will. I beg your pardon for speaking as I did when I last saw you. I had no right to judge or criticize you, none whatever."
"You do not need to apologize, Miss Colton. What you told me was probably true enough."
The conventional answer to this would have been a half-hearted denial of my statement. I presume I expected something of the sort. But this girl was not conventional.
"Yes," she said, thoughtfully, "I think it was. If I had not thought so I should not have said it. But that makes no difference. You and I are strangers, almost, and I had no right to speak as I did. I am impulsive, I know it, and I often do and say things on impulse which I am sorry for afterward. I offended you."
"Oh no, no," I put in, hurriedly. She had offended me, but this frank confession touched me more than the offense had hurt. She was doing a hard thing and doing it handsomely.
"Yes, I offended you," she repeated, firmly. "I have considered the matter a good deal since then, and it seems to me that you were right to feel offended. You had been very kind to me on several occasions and I had been your"—with a half smile—"your guest that day. I should not have hurt your feelings. Will you accept my apology?"
"Why, yes, of course, since you insist, Miss Colton."
She was turning to go; and I could not let her go thus. Although she had apologized for speaking her thought she had not retracted the thought itself. I was seized with a desire for justification in her eyes. I wanted to explain; forgetting for the moment that explanations were impossible.
"Miss Colton," I said, impulsively.
"May I—may I say a word?"
"Certainly, if you wish."
She turned again and faced me.
"Miss Colton, I—I—" I began, and paused.
"Well?" she said, patiently, "What is it?"
"Miss Colton," I blundered on, "you should not have apologized. You were right. Your estimate of me was pretty nearly correct. I realized that when you gave it and I have been realizing it ever since. I deserved what I got—perhaps. But I should not wish you to think—that is, I—well, I had reasons, they seemed to me reasons, for being what I was—what I am. I doubt if they were altogether good reasons; I am inclined now to think they were not. But I had come to think them good. You see, I—I—"
I stopped, face to face with the fact that I could not give those reasons to her or any one else. She was looking at me expectantly, and with, so it seemed to me, an expression of real, almost eager interest. I faltered, tried to go on, and then surrendered, absolutely, to the hopelessness of the situation.
"It is no use," I said, "I can't tell you what those reasons were."
I turned as I said it. I did not care to see her expression change. I knew what she must be thinking and I had no desire to read the thought in her eyes. I stood there, waiting for her to leave in disgust.
"I can't tell you," I repeated, stubbornly.
"Very well." Her tone was as coldly indifferent as I had anticipated. "Was that all you wished to say to me, Mr. Paine?"
"Miss Colton, I should like to explain if I could. But I cannot."
"Pray don't trouble yourself. I assure you I had no intentions of asking for your—reasons. Good afternoon."
I heard her skirts brush the leaves at the border of the path. She was going; and the contemptuous slur at my "reasons" proved that she did not believe them existent. She believed me to be a liar.
"Miss Colton," I said, sharply; "wait."
She kept on.
"Wait," I said again. "Listen to me."
She seemed to hesitate and then turned her head.
"I am listening," she said. "What is it?"
"You have no right to disbelieve me."
"I disbelieve you? Why should you think I disbelieve you? I am not sufficiently interested to believe or disbelieve, I assure you."
"But you do. You judge me—"
"I judge you! You flatter yourself, Mr. Paine."
"But you do. You apologized just now for judging me without a hearing the other day. You acknowledged that you should not have done it. You are doing the same thing now."
"I apologized for presuming to offer advice to a stranger. I did not apologize for the advice itself. I think it good. I do not care to argue the matter further."
"You are not asked to argue. But your sneer at my reasons proves that you believe that I have none and am merely trying to justify myself with trumped up and lying excuses. You are wrong, and since you presumed to judge me then you must listen to me now. I have—or had—reasons for living as I have done, for being the idler and good-for-nothing you believe me to be. I can't tell you what they are; I can tell no one. But I do ask you to believe that I have them, that they are real, and that my being what you termed ambitionless and a country loafer is not my condition from choice. It is my right to insist upon your believing that. Do you believe it?"
At last I had made an impression. My earnestness seemed to have shaken her contemptuous indifference. She looked at me steadily, frowning a little, but regarding me less as if I were a clod and more and more as if I were the puzzle she had once declared me to be. I did not shun her look now, but met it eye to eye.
"Do you believe me?" I demanded.
Slowly her frown was disappearing.
"Do you believe me?" I said, again. "You must."
"Yes, you must. I shall make you. If not now, at some other time. You must believe me, Miss Colton."
The frown disappeared altogether and she smiled.
"If you order me to I suppose I must," she said, with a shrug of mock resignation. "I should have learned by this time that it is useless to say no when you say yes, Mr. Paine."
"But do you?"
She turned altogether and faced me.
"I am very glad to believe you," she said, with simple directness.
I stammered a "Thank you" and was silent. I dared not trust myself to speak at the moment. Somehow the sincerity of her words moved me far more than their trifling import warranted. She had declared her belief that I was not a liar, that was all; and yet I stood there fighting down all sorts of ridiculous emotions. The situation was decidedly strained, but, as usual, she saved it.
"It seems to me," she said, with the twinkle which I had learned to recognize as a forerunner of mischief on her part, "that you are inclined to make mountains out of mole-hills, Mr. Paine. Was there any need to be quite so fiercely tragic? And, besides, I think that even now you have not told the whole truth."
"The whole truth? Why, Miss Colton, I have just explained that—"
"Oh, not that truth! Your mysterious 'reasons' are not my affair. And I have told you that I was willing to take those on trust. But you have not been quite truthful in another particular. You intimated that you were an idler. I have been given to understand that you are far from being an idler just now."
I was relieved. "Oh, I see!" I exclaimed. "You mean—some one has told you of my employment at the bank."
"A number of persons have told me. Surely you did not expect to keep THAT a secret—in Denboro?"
"Well, scarcely," I admitted, with a laugh. "That was known almost before I was sure of it myself. You should have seen Eldredge's face when I announced my intention. And Lute—Mrs. Rogers' husband—hasn't completely recovered yet. The sight of me, actually trying to earn a living, was too much for him. You see what a miracle worker you are, Miss Colton."
"Did you really accept the position simply because of what I said to you?"
"Yes. The chance had been offered me before, but it was your frankness that shocked me into taking it."
"Not really? You are joking."
"No, I'm not. You are responsible. Are you sorry?"
Her answer was a question.
"Are you?" she asked.
"No. At first it seemed ridiculous and strange, even to myself; but now I like the work. It is like old times."
I was forgetting myself again; talking too much was a dangerous train—for me. I laughed, with pretended carelessness.
"Why, yes; I was employed in a bank at one time. I think I told you that. Have you been motoring much of late, Miss Colton?"
"Yes. Tell me, please: You really like your work?"
"Yes, I do."
"Then I will answer your question. I am not a bit sorry. I am glad I was impertinent and intrusive, especially now that I have apologized and you have accepted the apology. I am very glad I told you you should do something worth while."
"Even if it were nothing more than to follow Thoph Newcomb's example and sell fish."
"Yes," laughingly, "even that. I WAS impertinent, wasn't I! I don't wonder you were offended."
"I needed the impertinence, I guess. But frankly, Miss Colton, I can't see why you should be glad because I have gone to work. I can't see what difference my working or idling can possibly make to you."
"Oh, it doesn't, of course—except on general principles. I am a dreadful idler myself; but then, I am a woman, and idleness is a woman's right."
I thought of Dorinda and of the other housewives of Denboro and how little of that particular "right" they enjoyed; which thought brought again and forcibly to my mind the difference between this girl's life and theirs—and Mother's—and my own.
"A man," continued Miss Colton, sagely, "should not idle. He should work and work hard—so that the rest of us may be as good for nothing as we please. That is philosophy, isn't it?"
"You were good enough not to say what sort of philosophy. Thank you. But seriously, Mr. Paine, I am fond of your mother—very fond, considering our short acquaintance—and when I saw her lying there, so patient, and deprived of the little luxuries and conveniences which she needs, and which a little more money might bring to her, it seemed to me . . . Gracious! what a lot of nonsense I am talking! What is the matter with me this afternoon? Do let's change the subject. Have you sold your land yet, Mr. Paine? Of course you haven't! That is more nonsense, isn't it."
I think she had again spoken merely on the impulse of the moment; doubtless there was no deliberate intention on her part to bring me to a realization of my position, the position I occupied in her thoughts; but if she had had such an intent she could not have done it more effectively. She believed me to have been neglecting Mother, and her interest in my "doing something worth while" was inspired merely because she wished Mother to be supplied with those "luxuries and conveniences" she had mentioned. Well, my question was answered; this was the difference my working or idling made to her. And, for a minute or two, I had been foolish enough to fancy her interested, as a friend, in my success or failure in life. I might have known better. And yet, because of the novelty of the thing, because I had so few friends, I felt a pang of disappointment.
But I resolved she should not know she had disappointed me. I might have been a fool, but I would keep my foolishness a secret.
"No, Miss Colton," I said, with a smile, "I haven't sold yet."
"Father said he saw you at the bank. Did he say anything about the land?"
"He said his offer was still open, that was all."
"You are resolved not to sell."
"To him? Yes, I am resolved. I think he knows it. I tried to make it plain."
"You say to him. Are you thinking of selling to any one else? To the town?"
"No. Probably not to any one. Certainly not to your father or the town."
She looked at me, with an odd expression, and seemed to hesitate.
"Mr. Paine," she said, slowly, "would you resent my giving you another bit of—advice?"
"Not at all. What is it this time?"
"Why, nothing. I must not give you any advice at all. I won't. Instead I'll give you one of Father's pet proverbs. It isn't an elegant one, but he is very fond of repeating it. 'There are more ways of killing a cat than choking it to death with butter.' There! you will admit it is not elegant."
"But Miss Colton! Killing a cat! What in the world?"
"You mustn't ask me. I shouldn't have said even that. But remember, it is father's pet proverb. I must go. Please give my love to your mother and tell her I shall call again soon. Good-by."
She walked briskly away and did not look back. I went home. I thought a great deal during the evening and until late that night. When, at last, I did go to bed I had not made much progress in the problem of the cat, but I did believe that there was a rat in the vicinity. I was beginning to scent one. If I was not mistaken it called itself the Bay Shore Development Company.
I said nothing to Mother of the new proposal to buy our land, but next morning at the bank I wrote a letter to the cashier of a bank in Boston, one of our correspondents, and with which our little institution was on very friendly terms. I asked the cashier to make some guarded inquiries concerning the Bay Shore Company, to find out, if possible, who was behind it and also to inquire concerning Barclay and Keene, the real estate brokers of Milk Street.
The reply to my letter reached me on Friday. It was satisfactory, eminently so. And when, on Saturday afternoon, Mr. Keene, bland and smiling as ever, made his appearance at the house, I was ready for him. I stood on the step and made no move to invite him within. "Well, Mr. Paine," he said, cordially, "are you ready to talk business?"
"Quite ready," I answered.
He beamed with satisfaction.
"Good!" he exclaimed. "Then what is your figure?"
"My figure is a naught," I replied, with emphasis. "You may tell your employer that I do not care to sell the land to him, no matter whether he calls himself James Colton or the Bay Shore Development Company. Oh yes; and, if you like, you may add that this particular cat declines to be choked."
Mr. Keene showed signs of choking, himself, and I shut the door and left him outside. Lute, who had been listening at the dining-room window and had heard only fragments of the brief interview, was in a state of added incoherence.
"Well, by time!" he gasped. "What—what sort of talk was that? Chokin' a cat! A cat!! We ain't got no cat."
"Haven't we?" I observed. "Why, no, so we haven't! Perhaps you had better explain that to Mr. Keene, Lute. It may help him to understand the situation. And add that I suggest his telling the person who sent him here that soft-soap is no improvement on butter."
I think Lute did tell him just that, doubtless with all sorts of excuses for my insanity, for the next day, Sunday, as I walked along the beach, a big body came ploughing down the sandy slope and joined me.
"Hello!" said Colton.
"Good morning," said I.
"How are independence and public spirit these days?"
"Very well, thank you. How are Development Companies developing?"
He put back his head and laughed. He did not seem a bit chagrined or discomfited. The joke was on him, but he could enjoy it, nevertheless. In spite of my antagonism toward this man I could not help admiring certain traits of his character. He was big, in every way. Little repulses or setbacks did not trouble him.
"Say," he said, "how did you know about that cat?"
"Saw his footprints," I replied. "They were all over the scheme. And your friend Keene purred too loud."
"I don't mean that. Keene was a fool; that was plain enough for anyone to see. I had to use him; if Barclay hadn't been sick it might have been different. But how did you come to send me that message about the butter? Man, that is one of my favorite sayings—the choking the cat thing! How did you know that? I never said it to you."
"Oh, it is an old saying. I have heard it often; and it did seem to fit in this case. I imagined you would understand and appreciate."
"Um—yes," dryly. "I appreciated all right. As to understanding—well, I'll understand later on. That's another little conundrum for me to work out. Somebody's been talking, of course. Here! hold on!" as I was walking away: "Don't go. I want to talk to you."
He characteristically did not ask whether or not I wanted to talk to him, but, as I happened to be in no hurry, I stopped and waited for him to continue. He thrust his hands into his pockets and looked me over, very much as he might have looked over a horse he was thinking of buying.
"Paine," he said, suddenly, "do you want to go to work?"
"Work?" I repeated. "I am at work already."
"You've got a job, such as it is. It might be work for the average jay, but it isn't for you. I'll give you something to work at—yes, and work for."
I stared at him in wondering suspicion.
"What is this; another Development Company?" I demanded.
"Ha! ha! not this time. No, this is straight. If you'll say that you'll work for me I'll make an opening for you in my New York office."
I did not answer. I was trying to fathom the motive behind this new move.
"I'll put you to work in my office," he went on. "It may not be much to begin with, but you can make it anything you like; that'll be up to you. As to salary—well, I don't know what you're getting in that one-horse bank, but I'll double it, whatever it is. That will be the start, of course. After that it is up to you, as I said."
"Mr. Colton this may be a good joke, but I don't see it—yet."
"I don't joke often in business; can't afford to."
"You are really serious? You mean what you say?"
"But why? You don't know anything about me."
"I know all that is necessary. And I have found out that you are all right, so far as bank work goes. That fellow Taylor and some others told me that. But I didn't need their telling. Why, man, it is part of my trade to know men when I see them. I have to know 'em. I said a while ago that you didn't belong in this forsaken hole of a town. God knows it IS forsaken! Even my wife is beginning to admit that, and she was the keenest to come here. Some day I shall get sick of it and sell out, I suppose."
"Oh, not yet. Mabel—my daughter—seems to like it here, for some unknown reason, and wants to stay. And I don't intend to sell until I've bought—what I set out to buy. But I'm not the subject we're talking about just now. You are. Come! here's your chance to be somebody. More chance than I had, I'll tell you that. You can go to work in my office next week, if you want to. Will you?"
I laughed at the idea. I believed I had found the motive I was seeking. "Of course not," I said. "You can't close the Lane by that kind of bribery, Mr. Colton."
"Bribery be hanged! Come, come, Paine! Wake up, or I shall think your brains aren't up to standard, after all. When I bribe I bribe. When I ask a man to work for me there are no strings tied to the offer. Forget your picayune land for a minute. Time enough to remember that when I've got it, which will be some day or other, of course. I'm making you this offer because I want you. You're sharp; you saw through that Development game. You're clever—your sending me that 'cat' message proves it. And your not telling me where the idea for the message came from proves that you can keep your mouth shut. I could use a dozen fellows like you, if I could get them. You interested me right at the start. A chap with sand enough to tell Jim Colton to go to the devil is always interesting. I'm offering you this chance because I think it is a good chance for both of us. Yes, and because I like you, I suppose, in spite of your pig-headedness. Will you take it?"
"No, thank you," I answered.
"Why? Because you can't leave your sick mother? She'll be all right. I was talking with the doctor—Quimby, his name is, isn't it—and he happened to mention that he was encouraged about her. Said she had been distinctly better for the last month."
I could not believe it. Doctor Quimby had said nothing of the sort to me. It was impossible. Mother BETTER!
"That doesn't mean she is going to be well and strong again, of course," he added, not unkindly. "But I think Quimby believes she may be well enough to—perhaps—sit up one of these days. Be wheeled about in a chair, or something of that sort . . . Why! what is the matter? You looked as if I had knocked you out. Hasn't the doctor said anything to you?"
"No," I stammered. I WAS knocked out. I could not believe it. Mother, the bed-ridden invalid of six long years, to be well enough to sit up! to use a wheeled chair! It could not be true. It was too good to be true.
"So, you see, you could leave her all right," went on Colton. "If it was necessary you could get a nurse down here to look after her while you were away. And you might get home every fortnight or so. Better take my offer, Paine. Come!" with a grunt of impatient amusement, "don't keep me waiting too long. I am not used to coaxing people to work for me; it is usually the other way around. This offer of mine happens to be pretty nearly a disinterested one, and," with one of his dry smiles, "all my offers are not that kind, as you ought to know. Will you say yes now? Or do you want till to-morrow to think it over?"
The news concerning Mother had upset me greatly, but my common-sense was not all gone. That there was something behind his offer I believed, but, even if there were not—if it was disinterested and made simply because my unearthing of the Bay Shore "cat" had caught his fancy—I did not consider for a moment accepting it. Not if Mother was like other women, well and strong, would I have accepted it. In Denboro I was Roscoe Paine, and my life story was my own secret. In New York how long would it be before that secret and my real name were known, and all the old disgrace and scandal resurrected?
"What do you say?" asked Colton, again. "Want more time to think about it, do you?"
I shook my head. "No," I answered. "I have had time enough. I am obliged for the offer and I appreciate your kindness, but I cannot accept."
I expected him to express impatience or, perhaps, anger; at least to ask my reasons for declining. But his only utterance was a "Humph!" For a moment he regarded me keenly. Then he said:
"Haven't got the answer yet, have I? All right. Well," briskly, "when are you and I going on that shooting trip?"
"There is no shooting at present," I answered, as soon as I could adjust my mind to this new switch in the conversation.
"That so? Any fishing?"
"I believe the squiteague are running outside. I heard they were."
"Squiteague. Weakfish some people call them."
"They are pretty fair sport, aren't they?"
"Yes, fair. Nothing like bluefish, however."
"All right. What is the matter with our going squint—squint—something or othering one of these days? Will you go? Or are you as pig-headed about that as you are about other things?"
I laughed. "Not quite," I said. "I should be glad of your company, Mr. Colton."
"Next Saturday suit you?"
"Yes. After bank hours."
"All right. I'll look after the boat. You provide the bait and tackle. That's fair, isn't it? Right. Be on hand at my dock at one o'clock. Morning."
He walked off. Neither of us had thought of the tide—he, probably, not realizing that high water was an important factor, and I being too much agitated by what he had said about Mother, and the suddenness with which the fishing trip was planned, to think calmly of anything.
That week was a strange one to me, and the first of many strange ones. My manner of life was changing, although I did not realize it and although the change came through no effort of my own. Our house, which had been so long almost a hermitage, if a home containing four persons might be called that, was gradually becoming a social center. Matilda Dean had called once a week regularly for some time and this particular week Captain Jed came with her. Captain Elisha Warren and his cousin and housekeeper, Miss Abbie Baker, drove down for a half-hour's stay. George Taylor and Nellie spent an evening with us. I feared the unaccustomed rush of company might have a bad effect upon Mother, but she seemed actually the better for it. She professed to believe that Denboro was awakening to the fact of my merits as a man and a citizen. "They are finding you out at last, Boy," she said. I laughed at her. I knew better. It was because of my position in the bank that these people came. I was making good there, apparently, and the surprise at this caused Captain Warren and the rest to take a new, and no doubt transitory interest in me.
And I thought I knew Captain Jed's reason for coming. An interview between us gave me the inkling. Matilda was in Mother's room and Dean and I were together in the dining-room.
"Ros," said the captain, suddenly, "you ain't backin' water, are you?"
"Backing water? What do you mean by that?"
"In this Lane business. You ain't cal'latin' to sell out to Colton, after all?"
"Well, hardly. Why do you say that?"
"Nothin', maybe. But they tell me you're kind of thick with the R'yal family lately. Beriah Holt says he see you and the Colton girl come out of the woods back of his place one afternoon a spell ago. She was on horseback and you was walkin', but Beriah says you and she was mighty friendly."
I might have expected this. In Denboro one does few things unnoticed.
"She had lost her way in the woods and I helped her to find the road home," I said, "that was all."
"Hum! You helped her to find the road the night of the strawberry festival, too, didn't you?"
"How in the world did you find that out?"
"Oh, it just sort of drifted around. I've got pretty big ears—maybe you've noticed 'em—and they gen'rally catch some of what's blowin' past. There was a coachman mixed up in that night's work and he talked some, I shouldn't wonder; most of his kind do."
"Well, what of it?" I asked, sharply. "I helped her as I would your daughter if she had been caught alone in a storm like that. I should have been ashamed not to."
"Sartin! Needn't get mad about it. What's this about your takin' his Majesty off fishin' next Saturday?"
All of my personal affairs seemed to be common property. I was losing my temper in spite of my recent good resolutions.
"Look here, Captain Dean," I said, "I have a right to take any one fishing, if I choose. Mr. Colton asked me to do it and I saw no reason for saying no."
"Funny he should ask you. He ain't asked anybody else in town."
"I don't know that and I don't care. I shall do as I please. I have no grievance against the Coltons. I shall not sell them my land, but I reserve the right to meet them—yes, and to associate with them—if I choose. You and your friends may as well understand that, Captain."
"There! there! don't get huffy. I ain't got the right to say what your rights are, Ros. And I don't think for a minute you'd back water on the Lane business a-purpose. But I do think you're takin' chances. I tell you, honest, I'm scart of old Colton, in a way, and I ain't scart of many folks. He's a fighter and he's smart. He and I have had some talks—"
"You have?" I interrupted.
"Yup. Lively squabbles they was, too. Each of us expressin' our opinion of t'other and not holdin' back anything to speak of. I don't know how he felt when we quit, but I know I respected him—for his out and open cussedness and grit, if nothin' else. And I think he felt the same way about me. But he's smart—consarn him, he is! And HE never backs water. That's why I think you're takin' chances in bein' too friendly with him. He's layin' low and, if you get off your guard just once he'll grab."
I hesitated; then I made up my mind.
"Captain Dean," I said, "his smartness hasn't caught me yet. I'm going to tell you something, but first you must promise not to tell anyone else."
He promised and I told him of Mr. Keene and the Bay Shore Company. He listened, interrupting with chuckles and exclamations. When I had finished he seized my hand and wrung it.
"By the everlastin'!" he exclaimed, "that was great! I say again, you're all right, Ros Paine. Even I swallered that Development Company, hook, line, and sinker. But YOU saw through it!"
"I tell you this," I said, "so that you will understand I have no intention of backing water."
"I know you ain't. Knew it afore and now I know it better. But I can't understand what the Colton game is—and there is a game, sure. That daughter of his, now—she may be in it or she may not. She's pretty and I will give in that she's folksy and sociable with us natives; it's surprisin', considerin' her bringin' up. Nellie and Matildy like her, Nellie especial. They're real chummy, as you might say. Talk and talk, just as easy and common as you and I this minute. I've heard 'em two or three times at my house when they thought I wasn't listenin' and twice out of the three they was talkin' about you."
"About ME?" I repeated.
"Yes. I don't wonder you're surprised. I was myself. Asked Nellie about it and she just laughed. Said you was the principal object of interest in town just now, which is more or less true. But it makes me suspicious, all the same. Why should a girl like that Colton one talk about a feller like you? You're as fur apart, fur's anything in common is concerned, as molasses is from vinegar. Ain't that so?"
It was so, of course, but he need not have been so brutally frank in telling me. However, I nodded and admitted that he was right.
"Yes," he said. "A blind horse could see there was no sensible, open and above-board reason for HER bein' interested in YOU. So there's another reason, the way I look at it, and that's why I'd be mighty careful, mighty careful, Ros. Her pa's got a new trick up his sleeve and she's helpin' him play it, that's my notion. So be careful, won't you."
"I'll be careful," said I. I knew, as well as I knew my real name—which he did not—that Mabel Colton was not helping her father play any tricks. I had seen enough of her to be certain she was not tricky. And, besides, if she were in sympathy with her parent, why had she given me the hint which put me on the trail of the Development Company? Why had she given me the hint at all? That was the real riddle, and I had not, as yet, hit upon a plausible answer. Those I had hit upon were ridiculous and impossible, and I put them from my mind. But she was not tricky, that I knew.
Captain Jed changed the subject and we talked of Nellie's wedding, which was to take place in a month. The captain was full of various emotions, regret at losing his daughter and joy because of her getting such a good husband. His last words were these:
"Ros," he said, "be careful, for my sake full as much as yours. This Lane business and Nellie's gettin' married have sort of possessed me, same as the evil spirits did the swine, in scriptur'. I lay awake nights fussin' for fear the marriage won't turn out happy or for fear you'll sell the Lane after all. And one's just as likely to happen as t'other—which means they're both impossible, I cal'late. But look out for that Colton girl, whatever else you do. She's a good deal better lookin' than her dad, but she's just as dangerous. You mark my words, son, the feller that plays with fire takes chances. So don't be TOO sociable with any of the tribe."
And the very next afternoon the dangerous person herself called and she and I spent an hour in Mother's room, where the three of us chatted like old friends. She had the rare power of making one forget self and personal worries and I could readily understand why Mother had been so completely won by her. She was bright and cheery and sympathetic. Here there was no trace of the pride of class and the arrogance which had caused me to hate her so heartily at first. It seemed almost as if she had set herself the task of making me like her in spite of my prejudices. My reason told me that this could not be; it was merely her fancy for Mother which caused her to notice me at all; she had as much as said so more than once. But I did like her; I acknowledged it in my thoughts; and, after she had gone, the room, with its drawn shades, seemed doubly dark and gloomy. Mother was silent for a few minutes and I, too, said nothing. Then:
"She is a wonderful girl, isn't she, Roscoe," said Mother.
She was altogether too wonderful, that was the trouble. A girl like her had no place in our lives. I went out for a walk and a smoke by the bluff edge; and, almost before I knew it, I found myself standing at the border of the grove, looking at the great house and trying to guess which was her room and if she was there and of what or whom she might be thinking just then. "Mark my words, son," Captain Jed had declared, "the feller that plays with fire takes chances."
I turned on my heel and set out for home. I would take no chances. I must not play with fire, even though the flames had, for the moment, dazzled me. I had called myself a fool many times in the past few years, but I would not be so great a fool as that.
So I resolved, more resolutely than ever, to keep out of her way, to see as little of her as possible! and, as had happened before to similar resolutions of mine with which she was concerned, this one was rendered non-effective, through no fault of my own, almost as soon as it was made. For on Saturday afternoon, as I approached the Colton wharf, laden with bait and rods for the fishing excursion in the Colton boat, I saw her standing there beside her father, waiting for me.
"We've got a passenger, Paine," said "Big Jim." "You've met her before, I believe—on the water and in it. No objections to my daughter's going along, have you?"
What could I say; except to announce delight at the addition to our party? Perhaps I did not say it as heartily as I might, for, Miss Colton, who was regarding me with a mischievous smile, observed demurely:
"I am sure he must be delighted, Father. Mr. Paine knows I am very fond of fishing; don't you, Mr. Paine?"
"Yes; oh, yes, of course," I stammered.
"He does, eh!" Her father seemed surprised. "How did he find that out?"
I thought the question was addressed to her, so I did not answer. She seemed to think otherwise, for she said:
"Did you hear, Mr. Paine? Father asks how you knew I was fond of fishing."
"Why—er—you told me so, Miss Colton," I replied. If she had not related her Seabury Pond experience to her parents I did not propose to be trapped into doing so. She laughed merrily.
"Did I?" she asked. "Yes, I believe I did."
Mr. Colton looked at us, each in turn.
"Humph!" he observed; "I don't seem to be aboard this train. What's the joke?"
She saved me the problem of inventing a satisfactory answer.
"Oh, it's a little joke of Mr. Paine's and my own," she explained. "I'll tell you about it by and by, Father. It would take too long to tell now. He saved my life once more, that's all."
"Oh! that's all! Humph! And you did not think a trifle like that worth mentioning to me, I suppose. Would you mind telling me what it was he saved you from this time?"
"From starvation. I was a famished wayfarer and he took me in. There, Daddy, don't puzzle your poor brain any longer. It is all right and I'll tell you all about it when we get home. Now I am sure we should be starting if we are to have any fishing at all. Shall we cast off, Mr.—that is, Captain Paine?"
That fishing trip was not a huge success if judged solely by the size of the catch. The weakfish were not hungry or we did not tempt them with bait to their taste that day. We got a half dozen, of which I caught three, Miss Colton two, and her father but one. His, however, was a big one, much the biggest of the six, and he had a glorious time landing it. He fished as he appeared to do everything else, with intense earnestness and determination. He evidently considered the struggle a sort of personal disagreement between the fish and himself and, as usual, intended to have his way. He succeeded after a while, and announced that he had not enjoyed anything as much since arriving in Denboro.
His daughter also seemed to be enjoying herself. She was quite as good a fisher as her father, and, when the sport was over, and we reeled in our lines preparatory to starting for home, rallied him not a little at having been the least successful of the party. He took her teasing good-naturedly.
"You think it is quite a feat to get the better of your old dad, don't you, my lady," he observed.
"Of course I do. It is, isn't it?"
He chuckled. "Well, maybe you're right," he admitted. "You do it oftener than any one else, that is certain. Paine, you might take lessons from her, if you are still hoping to keep up your end in the little fight you and I have on hand."
She turned to me and smiled. Her graceful head was silhouetted against the red glow of the sunset and a loosened strand of her hair waved in the light breeze.
"I think Mr. Paine does not need lessons from any one," she said. "He seems to be holding his own very well."
"But he's frightened, all the same. Come, Paine, own up now. You know you are frightened, don't you?"
"Not very," I answered, truthfully.
"So? Then you aren't as sensible as you ought to be. A wise man knows when to be scared. Let's make a little bet on it. I'll bet you two to one that I'll own that land of yours inside of six months."
I shook my head. "I never bet on certainties," I declared. "I should be ashamed to collect my winnings."
This seemed to amuse them both, for they both laughed.
"Father," said Miss Colton, "I am afraid you don't learn by experience. You have lost one bet already, you know."
"That's so. And I haven't paid it yet, either. I must, or you'll be telling every one that I am a poor sport. Paine, this young lady bet me a new pipe against a box of gloves that you wouldn't—"
"Father," broke in the young lady, herself, "stop."
"Oh, all right, all right. Just as you say. But I tell you this, Paine; SHE hasn't any scruples against betting on certainties."
She was leaning against the cockpit rail, looking forward, and I could not see her face. She spoke without turning.
"You thought yours was the certainty," she said. "You warned me that I was sure to lose."
"Did I? Well, you may, even yet. On the whole, I think I'll wait a while before buying those gloves. Remember, there was no time limit. When you said that—"
"Father," more firmly, "please be quiet. You have said quite enough. Mr. Paine is not likely to be interested in the family gambling."
I was interested in this particular "gamble." The wager had, obviously, something to do with me. I suppose I should have felt flattered at being made the subject of a bet in such select circles, but I did not. I had not been informed as to the details of that bet.
There was nothing more said about it at the time and my passengers talked of other things as we sailed home before the fast dying breeze. It died almost altogether as we passed the lighthouse at Crow Point and entered the bay and, for an hour, we barely held our own against the tide. The sun set, twilight came, and the stars appeared one by one. Colton, lying at full length on the deck forward of the cockpit, smoked in lazy enjoyment. His only remark in ten minutes was to the effect that his wife had probably drowned us all, in her mind, a dozen times over by now.
His daughter, sitting by the rail and looking out over the smooth, darkly glimmering water, bade him be quiet.
"You must not talk," she said. "This is the most wonderful night I ever experienced. How still it is! You can hear every sound. Hark!"
From the dusk, to port, came the clear strokes of a church bell striking eight.
"That is the clock at the Methodist Church, isn't it?" asked Miss Colton.
"Yes," said I.
"The church where the strawberry festival was held?"
Colton struck a match to relight his cigar.
"Shouldn't think that would be a pleasant reminder to either of you," he observed. "I am mighty sure it wasn't to me."
Miss Colton did not answer, nor did I.
The breeze sprang up again soon after, from a different quarter this time, but the tide had ebbed so far that I was obliged to make the detour around the end of the flat upon which Victor had grounded the dingy. "Big Jim" raised himself on his elbow.
"Hello!" he exclaimed, "here's another joyful spot. Mabel, it was along here somewhere that Paine acquired the habit of carrying you about like a bundle. It must have been a picturesque performance. Wish I might have seen it."
He laughed heartily.
"Father," said the young lady, coldly, "don't be silly—please."
He chuckled and lay down again, and no one spoke during the rest of the voyage. It was after nine when I brought the boat up to the wharf, made her fast, and lowered and furled the sail.
"Better come up to the house with us and have a bit to eat, Paine," urged Colton. "You must be hungry; I know I am."
"Oh, no, thank you," said I. "Supper will be waiting for me at home."
"Glad to have you, if you'll come. Tell him to come, Mabel."
Miss Colton's invitation was not over-cordial.
"I presume Mr. Paine knows what is best for him to do," she said. "Of course we shall be glad to have him, if he will come."
I declined, and, after thanking me for the sail and the pleasure of the fishing trip, they left me, Colton carrying his big squiteague by the gills, its tail slapping his leg as he climbed the bluff. A moment later I followed.
The night was, as my feminine passenger had said, wonderfully quiet, and sounds carried a long way. As I reached the juncture of the path and the Lane I heard a voice which I recognized as Mrs. Colton's. She was evidently standing on the veranda of the big house and I heard every word distinctly.
"You are so unthinking, James! You and Mabel have no regard for my feelings at all. I have been worried almost to death. Do you realize the time? I warned you against trusting yourself to the care of that common FELLOW—"
The "fellow" heard no more. He did not wish to. He was tramping heavily through the dew-soaked undergrowth. He needed now no counsel against "playing with fire." The cutting contempt of Mrs. James W. Colton's remark was fire-extinguisher sufficient for that night.
Miss Colton and I met again at the door of the bank a day or two later, just at closing time. Sam Wheeler had already gone and I left George at his desk, poring over papers and busily figuring. He was working over time much of late and explained his industry by the fact of his approaching marriage and his desire to make things easy for me to handle while he was on his brief wedding trip. I was not much alarmed by the prospect. He was to be gone but a week and I had become sufficiently familiar with the routine to feel confident in assuming the responsibility. Small, my predecessor, had a brother who had formerly been employed in the bank and was now out of work, and he was coming in to help during the cashier's absence. I was not worried by the prospect of being left in charge, but I was worried about George. He, so it seemed to me, had grown pale and thin. Also he was nervously irritable and not at all like his usual good-natured self. I tried to joke him into better humor, but he did not respond to my jokes. He seemed, too, to realize that his odd behavior was noticeable, for he said:
"Don't mind my crankiness, Ros. I've got so much on my mind that I'd be mean to my old grandmother, if I had one, I guess likely. Don't let my meanness trouble you; it isn't worth trouble."
I laughed. "George," I said, "if I ever dreamed of such a thing as getting married myself, you would scare me out of it. You ought to be a happy man, and act like one; instead you act as if you were about to be jailed."
He caught his breath with a sort of gasp. Then, after a pause and without looking up, he asked slowly:
"Jailed? What in the world made you say that, Ros?"
"I said it because you act as if you were bound for state's prison instead of the matrimonial altar. George, what IS troubling you?"
"Troubling me? Why—why, nothing special, of course. Catching up with my work here makes me nervous and—and kind of absent-minded, I guess. Act absent-minded, don't I?"
He did, there was no doubt of that, but I did not believe it was his work which caused the absent-mindedness.
"If there is any trouble, George," I said, earnestly; "if you're in any difficulty, personally, I shall be very glad to help you, if I can. I mean that."
For a moment I thought he hesitated. Then he shook his head.
"I know you mean it, Ros," he answered. "I'm much obliged to you, too. But there's nothing to help me with. I'm just nervous and tired, that's all."
I did not believe it, but I felt that I had said all I could, considering his attitude. I bade him good night and left the building. As I came down the steps Miss Colton was just crossing the road from Eldredge's store, a good sized brown paper parcel in her hand.
Ever since the day when Captain Jed had given me his warning I had been strengthening my resolution. The remark of Mrs. Colton's which I had overheard on the night of the fishing trip, although it revealed to me, as I believed, my real standing in the minds of my neighbors, whatever they might pretend when in my company, was, after all, only a minor detail. I knew that I must break off my acquaintance with this girl. By all that was sensible and sane it must be broken off. I must not, for my own sake, continue to meet her, to see her and speak with her. No; I would avoid her if I could, but, at all events, I would break off the association, even if I were obliged to offend her, deliberately offend her, to accomplish my purpose. I swore it; and then I swore at myself for being so weak-minded as to need to swear. That I should be afraid of a girl, a mere girl, ten years younger than I, who, as the casual pastime of an idle summer, had chosen to pretend an interest in me! I was not afraid of her, of course; I was afraid of myself. Not that I was in danger of falling in love with her—that idea was too ridiculous to be even funny. But she was becoming a disturbing influence in my life—that was it, a disturbing influence—and I must not permit myself to be disturbed.
So now, as I saw the disturbing influence crossing the road in my direction, my first thought was to retreat to the bank. But it was too late to retreat; she had seen me, and she bowed pleasantly as she approached.
"Good afternoon," she said.
I bowed and admitted that the afternoon was a good one, conscious as I did so that Sim Eldredge had followed her to the door of his store and was regarding us with marked interest.
She exhibited the package. "I am acting as my own errand boy, you see," she said, smiling. "It was such a beautiful day that I refused to send any one for this, or even to ride. I did not realize that a few yards of muslin would make such a bundle. Now I must carry it, I suppose, in spite of appearances."
I believed I saw an opportunity to escape.
"I am going directly home," I said. "Let me carry it down for you. I will send it over to your house by Lute."
"Oh, no thank you. I could not think of troubling Mr. Rogers. But do you really want to carry it? You may, for a while. We will take turns. I am going directly home, too; and we will walk down together. Unless, of course, you are in a hurry."
I think it was the expression of my face which led her to add the last sentence. If I had had time to think, to summon my resolution, it is possible—yes, it is possible that I should have declared myself to be in a hurry and gone on alone. But she had caught me unawares and resolution was wanting. I announced that I was in no hurry at all, and took the parcel.
We walked on together, she chatting easily, and I pretending to listen, although aware that our progress was watched by eager eyes and commented upon and exclaimed over by many tongues. The drawn shades of parlor windows moved significantly as we passed and, as we turned into the Lower Road, I glanced over my shoulder and saw Sim Eldredge and his clerk and Thoph Newcomb and Alvin Baker on the store platform, staring after us. As if this audience was not sufficient, and to make the affair complete, we met Captain Dean strutting importantly on his way to the post-office. He bowed and said "Afternoon," but the look he gave me was significant. There was surprise in it, and distrust. I knew I should have to do more explaining at our next meeting. And I knew, too, or could guess, what was being said that very moment at the store, and of the surmising and theorizing and strengthening of suspicions which would go on at a dozen supper tables that evening.
My companion, however, appeared to be quite unconscious of all this. That I might be suspected and misjudged because she had chanced to prefer my company to a walk home alone did not, evidently, occur to her. There was no reason why it should, of course; she was not in the position where the opinion or suspicions of Denboro's inhabitants need concern her in the least. But I, angry at Captain Jed for his look and with Sim Eldredge and his companions for their impudent stares and the trouble I knew their gossipy tongues would make for me, was gloomy and resentful.
She did most of the talking and I walked beside her, putting in a word occasionally and doing my best to appear as unconcerned as she really was. We crossed Elnathan Mullet's bridge and continued down the Shore Lane. Suddenly I was aware that she had not spoken for some minutes.
"Eh? Yes, Miss Colton; what is it?" I stammered. Then I realized that we were standing beside the granite posts marking the entrance to the Colton grounds. I had been so wrapped in my unpleasant thoughts and forebodings that we had reached our journey's end without my noticing it.
"Well!" I exclaimed, and then added the brilliant observation, "We are here, aren't we."
"We are," she said, dryly. "Didn't you know it?"
"Why, I had not realized. The walk has seemed so short."
"Yes, I'm sure it must. I think you have spoken exactly six words in the last five minutes. Will you come in?"
"Oh no; no, thank you."
"Why not? Father is in and will be glad to see you."
"I—I must be getting on toward home. Supper will be ready."
She bit her lip. "Far be it from me to criticize your domestic arrangements, Mr. Paine," she said, "but it does seem to me that your housekeeper serves meals at odd hours. It is only a few minutes after four, by my watch."
She had me at a disadvantage. I imagined I must have appeared embarrassed. I know I felt that way.
"I did not realize . . . I thought it much later," I stammered.
"Then you will come in? Father will like to discuss the fishing with you, I know. He has talked of little but his wonderful weakfish ever since he caught it."
"No, thank you, Miss Colton. Really, I must not stop."
She took the parcel from my hands.
"Very well," she said, indifferently; "as you please. I thank you for your kindness in walking down with me. Good afternoon, Mr. Paine."
She turned away. Here was the opportunity I had been waiting for, the opportunity of breaking off our acquaintance. If I knew anything I knew the tone of that "Good afternoon" meant that, for some reason or other, she was offended, just as I had been certain I wished her to be. Here was the opportunity, Heaven sent, to rid my life of its disturbing influence. Just what I had prayed for had come to pass.
And so, to prove the sincerity of my prayers and the worth of my high resolve, I—called her back.
"Miss Colton," I said.
She, apparently, did not hear me, so I called again.
"I seem somehow or other to have offended you." And even as I said it I realized the completeness of the back-down, realized it and blushed. I was ashamed of my weakness. Yet when she asked me to repeat my words I did so.
"You spoke to me?" she said, coldly.
"I—I said I had not meant to offend you."
"Why should you imagine that I am offended, pray? You seem to think other people must necessarily regard you as seriously as you do yourself. I am not offended."
"But you are."
"Very well; then I am. We won't argue the matter; it is scarcely worth argument, is it?"
This observation called for no answer in particular, at least I could not think of one. While I was groping for a word she spoke again.
"Don't let me detain you, Mr. Paine," she said. "I am sure your—supper, was it?—must be waiting."
"Miss Colton, you—you seem to resent my not accepting your invitation to visit your father. I assure you I—I should be very glad to call upon him."
"Thank you. I will tell him so. He will be grateful, doubtless. Your condescension is overwhelming, Mr. Paine."
"Miss Colton, everything I say seems to be wrong this afternoon. I don't know what I have done. Twice you have spoken of my condescension."
Her foot was beginning to pat the grass. I recognized the battle signal, but I kept on.
"I don't understand what you mean by condescension," I said.
"Don't you, indeed? You are very dense all at once, Mr. Paine."
"Possibly. But I don't understand."
For an instant she hesitated. Then she turned on me with a gust of fierce impatience which took my breath away. Her eyes flashed.
"You do," she declared. "You do understand, I am not blind. Do you suppose I could not see that you wished to avoid me when I met you at the bank just now? That my company was neither welcome nor desired? That you accepted my suggestion of walking down together merely because you could think of no excuse for declining?"
This was a staggerer. And the worst of it was its truth.
"Miss Colton," I faltered, "I can't understand what you mean. I—"
"You do understand. And please," with a scornful laugh, "oh, PLEASE understand that I am not troubled because of THAT. Your charming and cultivated society is not indispensable to my happiness, Mr. Paine, strange as that may appear to you. Really," with cutting contempt, "it is not."
"That I quite understand, Miss Colton," I said, "but—"
"But you are like every one else in this horrid, narrow, bigoted place. Don't you suppose that I see it everywhere I go! Every one here hates us—every one. We are intruders; we are not wanted here, and you all take pains to make us feel as uncomfortable as you can. Oh, you are all snobs—all of you."
I actually gasped.
"Snobs!" I repeated. "We—snobs?"
"Yes. That is exactly what you are. When Father came here he meant to be a citizen, a good citizen, of the town. He had intended to do all sorts of things to help the village and the people in it. He and I discussed ever so many plans for doing good here. And we wanted to be friendly with every one. But how have you treated us! No one comes to see us. We are avoided as if we had the small-pox. The majority of people scarcely speak to us on the street. I am so lonely and—"
She stopped. I had never seen her so agitated. As for me, astonishment is much too mild a term to use in describing my feelings. That these people, these millionaires and aristocrats should feel that they had been avoided and slighted, that we Denboroites were the snobs, that THEY should be lonely because no one, or almost no one, came to call upon them—this was too much for my bewildered brain to grasp all at once.
The young lady went on.
"And you!" she exclaimed. "You are as bad as the rest. Father has called upon you several times. I have called on your mother. Father and I have tried to be friendly and neighborly. Not that we are lacking in friends. We," haughtily, "are not obliged to BEG for friendship. But we felt it our duty to—"
I interrupted. There is a limit to forbearance and I considered that limit reached.
"Miss Colton," I declared, "you are talking nonsense. Considering the manner in which your father treated me when we first met, I—"
"How did you treat him? How did you treat Mr. Carver and me when you first met us in the auto? You insulted us. It was plain enough then that you hated us."
"I—why, Miss Colton, I did not know who you were."
"Indeed! Would it have made any difference if you had known? I doubt it. No, you are like the rest of the people here. Because we have come from the city you have chosen to be as envious and petty and disagreeable as you can. Even Nellie Dean, whom I know better than any one here, has never returned my call. There is a concerted plan to make us feel we are neither welcome nor wanted. Very well," disdainfully, "we know it. I, for one, shall not force my presence upon any one of you again. And it is probable that I shall manage to exist even without the delights of Denboro society. Good-by, Mr. Paine."
"But, Miss Colton—"
"Miss Colton, listen to me. You are wrong, all wrong, I tell you. There is no plan or plot to make you feel uncomfortable. We are plain village people here, and you are wealthy and have been used to associating with those of your class. Every one in Denboro knew that when you came, and they have been shy of intruding where they might not be welcome. Then there was that matter of the Lane here."
"Oh, that precious Lane! I wish I had never seen it."
"I have wished that a number of times in the past few months. But it is here and the question overshadows everything else in the village just now. It does not seem of much importance to you, perhaps; perhaps it is not so very important to me; but—"
Again she interrupted me.
"I think it is important enough to make you forget—ordinary courtesy," she declared. "Yes, courtesy. DON'T look at me like that! You know what I mean. As I told you before, I am not blind. Do credit me with some intelligence. All the way during this cheerful walk of ours you scarcely spoke a word. Did you suppose I did not know what was troubling you? I saw how that Captain Dean looked at you. I saw those people staring from the post-office door. I knew what you were afraid of their saying: that you are altogether too companionable with Father and me; that you intend selling the land to us, after all. That is what you thought they would say and you were afraid—AFRAID of their gossip. Oh, it is humiliating! And, for a time, I really thought you were different from the rest and above such things."
I began to feel as if I were once more a small boy receiving a lecture from the governess.
"I am not at all afraid of them, Miss Colton," I protested.
"You are. Why? Your conscience is clear, isn't it? You don't intend selling out to my father?"
"Then why should you care what people like that may think? Oh, you weary me! I admired you for your independence. There are few persons with the courage to face my father as you have done and I admired you for it. I would not have had you sell us the land for ANYTHING."
"You would not?" I gasped.
"Certainly not! I have been on your side all the time. If you had sold I should have thought you, like all the rest, holding back merely for a higher price. I respected you for the fight you were making. You must have known it. If I had not why do you suppose I gave you that hint about the Development Company?"
"Goodness knows!" I exclaimed, devoutly.
"And I was sure you could not be bribed by an offer of a position in Father's office. It was not really a bribe—Father has, for some unexplainable reason, taken a fancy to you—but I knew you would believe it to be bribery. That is why I was so positive in telling him that you would not accept. And now you—oh, when I think of how I have LOWERED myself! How I have stooped to . . . But there! I am sure that supper of yours must be waiting. Pray condescend to convey my regrets to the faithful—what is her name? Odd that I should forget a name like THAT. Oh, yes! Dorinda!—Pray convey my regrets to the faithful Dorinda for being unwittingly the cause of the delay, and assure her that the offense will NOT be repeated. Good-by, Mr. Paine."
She walked off, between the granite posts and along the curved drive. This time I made no attempt to call her back. The storm had burst so unexpectedly and had developed into such a hurricane that I had had time to do little more than bend my head before it. But I had had time enough to grow angry. I would not have called her back then for the world. She had insulted me, not once only, but again and again. I stood and watched her go on her way, and then I turned and went on my own.
The parting had come. The acquaintance was broken off; not precisely as I had intended it to be broken, but broken, nevertheless, and ended for good and all. I was glad of it. There would be no more fishing excursions, no more gifts of flowers and books, no more charity calls. The "common fellow" was free from the disturbing influence and he was glad of it—heartily glad of it.
Yet his gladness was not as apparent to others as it should, by all that was consistent, have been. Lute, evidently, observed no traces of transcendent happiness, when I encountered him in the back yard, beside the woodpile, sharpening the kindling hatchet with a whetstone, a process peculiarly satisfying to his temperament because it took such a long time to achieve a noticeable result.
"Hello, Ros!" he hailed. "Why! what ails you?"
"Ails me?" I repeated, crossly. "Nothing ails me, of course."
"Well, I'm glad to hear it. You look as if you'd lost your last friend."
"I haven't lost any friends. Far from it."
"Nobody's dead, then?"
"No. Though I could find some who are half dead without trying very hard."
More perfectly good sarcasm wasted. Lute inquired eagerly if I meant old Mrs. Lobelia Glover. "I heard yesterday she was pretty feeble," he added. "'Tain't to be expected she'll last a long spell, at her age. Doctor Quimby says she had a spine in her back for twenty years."
I made no comment upon poor Mrs. Glover's surprising affliction. I merely grunted and went into the house. Dorinda looked at me curiously.
"What's the trouble?" she asked.
"Trouble! There isn't any trouble. You and Lute seem to be looking for trouble."
"Don't have to look far to find it, in this world. Anything wrong at the bank?"
"Um-hm. Settin' so long on the fence make you uneasy? I told you the pickets would wear through if you roosted on 'em too long."
"There is nothing the matter, I tell you. How is Mother?"
"She ain't any wuss. If 'twan't an impossibility I'd say she was better the last month than I'd seen her since she was took. Nellie Dean called on her this afternoon."
"Humph! I should think a next week's bride would be too busy to call on any one except possibly the dressmaker."
"Um-hm. Well, Nellie looks as if she'd been callin' on the dressmaker pretty often. Anyhow she looked worried and Olindy Cahoon's dressmakin' gabble is enough to worry anybody. She left a note for you."
"Land sakes! no! What would Olindy be doin' down here? There ain't any brides to dress in this house, or bridegrooms either unless you're cal'latin' to be one, or Lute turns Mormon. That last notion ain't such a bad one," with a dry smile. "Another wife or two to help me take care of him would come in handy."
"Who did leave the note for me, then?"
"Nellie, of course. She wanted me to be sure you got it. Somethin' about that wonderful weddin', I s'pose. I left it upstairs on your bureau."
I found the note and put it in my pocket to read later on. I did not feel like reading it then. I did not feel like doing anything or seeing any one; yet least of all did I feel like being alone. For if I was alone I should think, and I did not want to think. I prowled about my room for a time and then went down and spent a short time with Mother. Her first question was concerning my day at the bank, and her second if I had seen any of the Coltons recently. "I rather hoped Miss Mabel would come to see me to-day," she added. "I look forward to her visits so, I think she's a real friend of ours, Roscoe. I know you don't, dear, or you try to believe you do not; but she is—I am convinced of it. I wonder if she will come to-morrow."
I could have put a stop to her wondering on that subject, but I was in no mood to do it then. I went into the dining-room. Dorinda warned me not to go far from the house because supper would be ready in a few minutes. The word "supper" reminded me of my unfortunate choice of an excuse and the sarcastic reference to our odd domestic arrangements; which reminded me, in its turn, of other sarcasms which had followed it. My "charming and cultivated society" was not necessary to her happiness . . . When she thought of how she had lowered herself . . . Other people did not necessarily regard me as seriously as I did myself . . . And so on . . . until Dorinda called me in to sit at the table, and pretend to eat while she and Lute commented on my lack of appetite and my absent-mindedness.
It was eight o'clock, and I had gone up to my room to escape from their solicitude and pointed questioning, when I happened to think of Nellie's note. I had not been curious concerning its contents, for, as I had agreed to act as best man at the wedding, I assumed, as Dorinda had done, that she had written on that, to her, all-important topic. I took the note from my pocket and tore open the envelope.
Nellie had not written about the wedding. Her letter was a long one, evidently written in great agitation and with words blotted and underscored. Its subject was the man she loved, George Taylor. She was so anxious about him. Did I remember, that night when my mother was ill, how she had spoken of him to me and asked if I had noticed how troubled and worried he seemed of late?
"And, Roscoe," she wrote, "I have noticed it more and more since then. He IS in trouble. There is something on his mind, something that he will not tell me and that I can see is worrying him dreadfully. He is not like himself at all. I KNOW something is wrong, and I cannot find out what it is. I want to help him SO much. Oh, please, Roscoe, don't think this is just a foolish girl's imagination, and does not amount to anything. It does. I know it does. You are his best friend. Can't YOU find out what is troubling him and help him, for my sake? I have meant to speak to you about this ever so many times, but I seldom see you alone and I could not speak while he was with me. So I decided to write this letter. If you will try, just TRY to find out what ails him and help him I shall never, NEVER forget your kindness. Perhaps he does not want to marry me. Perhaps he does not care for me as much as he thought he did and will not tell me because he does not want me to feel bad. If that is it tell him not to mind my feelings at all. I want him to be happy. If it would make him happier to have me give him up I will do it, even though I shall pray to die right away. Oh can't you help him and me, Roscoe? Please, PLEASE try. A girl ought to be perfectly happy who is going to be married. And I am so miserable. I can't tell Mother and Father because they would not believe me. They would think I just imagined it all. But YOU won't think that, will you? You will see him and try to help him, for my sake."
And so on, eight closely written pages, ending with another plea to me to see "poor George" and help him, and begging me to "burn this letter, because I should be so ashamed to have any one else see it."
It was a pitiful letter and, even in the frame of mind I was then in, disgusted with humanity and hating the entire feminine sex, I could not help feeling sorry for Nellie Dean. Of course I was surprised at receiving such a letter and I believed, just as she begged me not to believe, that the cause of her distress and anxiety was more imaginary than real. But that something was troubling George Taylor I had felt certain for a good while. The idea that he did not love Nellie I knew was preposterous. That was not it. There was something else, but what I could not imagine. I wanted to help the girl if I could, but how could I ask George to tell me his secrets? I, with a secret of my own.
After pondering for some time I decided to walk up to George's boarding place and talk with him. Nothing would come of the interview, probably, but I might as well do that as anything else. I must do something, something besides sit in that room and see mocking faces in every corner, faces with dark eyes and scornful lips which told me that my charming and cultivated society was not necessary to their happiness.
Taylor rented the upper floor of a house a quarter of a mile from the bank. His housekeeper answered my ring and informed me that her employer had not yet come home.
"He did not even come home for supper," she said. "Stayed over to Nellie's probably. You'll most likely find him there."
But I was pretty certain he was not at the Deans', for as I passed their house, I noticed the windows were dark, indicating that the family, like most of respectable Denboro, had already retired. I walked on to the Corners. Eldredge's store was closed, but the billiard room was radiant and noisy. I could hear Tim Hallet's voice urging some one to take a new cue, "'cause that one ain't pocketed many balls yet."
I looked across at the bank. The front portion of it was black enough, but the window of the directors' room was alight. I had located the object of my search; the cashier was there, working overtime, as he did so often nowadays.
I had my key in my pocket and I unlocked the big door and entered quietly. The door of the directors' room was open a little way and I tiptoed over and peeped in through the crack. Taylor was seated in a chair beside the big table, his elbows upon the table and his head in his hands. As I stood there, watching him, he took his hands away and I saw his face. Upon it was an expression of abject misery and utter despair. I opened the door and entered.
He heard the sound of the opening door and leaped to his feet. His chair fell backward on the floor with a clatter, but he paid no attention to it.
"Good God!" he cried, wildly. "Who's that?"
He was deathly pale and trembling violently. His appearance startled and alarmed me.
"It's all right," I said, hastily. "It is I—Paine. I saw the light and knew you must be here. What ails you? What IS the matter?"
For a moment he stood there staring. Then he turned and picked up the fallen chair.
"Oh, it's you, Ros, is it?" he faltered. "I—I—Lord, how you scared me! I—I—"
"George! what IS the matter with you? For heaven's sake! stand up, man!" He was swaying and I thought he was going to faint. "George! George Taylor! Are you ill? I am going for the doctor."
"No, no! Stay where you are. I ain't sick. I'll be all right in a minute. You—you scared me, creeping in that way. Sit down, sit down."
He steadied himself with one hand on the table and with the other reached to shut a drawer which had been open beside him. The drawer was almost full of papers, and, lying upon those papers, was a revolver.
Before he could close the drawer completely I caught his arm and held it.
"George," I cried, "George, what is the matter? Tell me; you must tell me."
He tried to pull his arm free. Finding that I would not let him do this he gave up the attempt and, with a poor attempt at a laugh, answered, "Matter? Why, nothing is the matter. I am tired and nervous, same as I've told you I've been for the last two or three months, and you scared me, tiptoeing in like a sneak thief, this time of night."
"Time of night! It is but a little after nine. What is the matter with you?"
"Nothing is the matter, I tell you. Let go of my arm, Ros. What do you mean by holding on to me like this?"
"What do YOU mean, George? What does THAT mean?"
I pointed to the drawer. He looked and, with a sudden effort, jerked his arm free and closed the drawer.
"That?" with a forced laugh. "Oh, that's nothing. It was late and I was alone here, so—"
"I know better. George, you're frightening us all. Don't you suppose we can see that something is wrong with you? I have seen it ever since I came here to work. You are worrying your friends. You worry me. Give us a chance to help you. Give ME a chance. You owe me that. Tell me your trouble and I'll pull you out of it; see if I don't."
My confidence was, of course, only pretence, but my earnestness had some effect. He looked at me wistfully, and shook his head.
"Nobody can pull me out," he said. "You're a good fellow to want to help, but you can't. There ain't any trouble. I'm just nervous—"
"I know better. You're lying, George. Yes, you are; you're lying."
"Humph! You're pretty plain spoken, Ros Paine. There ain't many people I'd take that from."
"You'll take it from me, because you can't help it and because you know it is true. Come, George; come. You have been a friend to me; the only real friend I have had in years. I have been looking for a chance to get even for what you have done for me. Maybe here is the chance. Let me help you. I will."
He was wavering; I could see it. But again he shook his head.
"Nobody can help me," he said.
"George, for my sake—well, then, if not for my sake or your own, then for Nellie's, give me a chance. You aren't treating her right, George. You should think of her. You—"
"Stop! Damn you, Ros Paine! what right have you to—"
"The right of a friend, her friend and yours. You're frightening the poor girl to death. She is beginning to be afraid you don't care for her."
"I? I don't care for HER? I don't—Oh, my God!"
To my utter amazement he began to laugh. And then, all at once, his laughter ceased, he swayed, choked, and, suddenly collapsing in the chair, dropped his head upon his arms on the table and sobbed, sobs that shook him from head to heel.
For one strong, healthy, normal man to see another cry is a disconcerting and uncomfortable experience. Masculine tears do not flow easily and poor George, on the verge of hysterics, was a pitiful and distressing spectacle. I was almost as completely disorganized as he. I felt ashamed for him and ashamed of myself for having seen him in such a condition. I wanted desperately to help him and I did not know what to do, so beyond patting him on the back and begging him repeatedly to brace up and not behave like that, I did nothing. At last his sobs ceased and he was silent. I had risen from my chair and now I stood there with a hand on his shoulder; the ticking of the ancient eight-sided clock on the wall sounded loud in the room.
Suddenly he sat up and threw off my hand.
"Well," he said, bitterly, "I'm a fine specimen of a man, ain't I. Ain't you proud of me?"
"I am mighty sorry for you," I answered. "And I mean to help you."
"How do you know?"
"Because I do know, Ros," he turned and looked me straight in the eye. "I am going to give you some good advice. Take it, for your own sake. Clear out of here and leave me. Don't have anything more to do with me. Clear out."
I did not move.
"Are you going to do as I tell you?" he demanded. "Mind, I'm telling you this for your own good. Will you clear out and leave me?"
I smiled. "Of course not," I answered.
"Don't be a fool. You can't afford to be my friend. Clear out and leave me, do you hear?"
"I hear. Now, George, what is it?"
His fingers tapped the table. I could see he was making up his mind.
"You want to know?" he said. "You won't be satisfied until you do?"
"I have made that fairly plain, I hope. At least I've tried to."
His fist clenched and he struck the table.
"Then, by the Almighty, I'll tell you!" he cried, fiercely. "It'll be all over the county in a week. You might as well know it now. I'm a crook. I'm a thief. I've stolen money from this bank and I can't pay it back because I haven't got it and can't get it. I'm a crook, I tell you, and in a week or so it'll be the county jail for mine. Unless—unless," with a significant glance at the drawer, "something else happens to me in the meantime. There; now you know. Are you satisfied? Are you happy because you've found out?"
I did not answer. To tell the truth I was not entirely overcome by surprise at the disclosure. I had begun to suspect something of the sort. Yet, now that my suspicions were confirmed, I was too greatly shocked and horrified to speak at once.
"Well?" he sneered. "Now will you clear out and let me settle this my own way?"
I pulled my chair forward and sat down.
"Tell me all about it, George," I said, as calmly as I could. "How much is it?"
He stared at me aghast. "You won't go?" he cried. "You—you are going to stick by me even—even—"
"There! there! pull yourself together, old fellow. We won't give up the ship yet. How much is it? It can't be a great sum."
"It ain't. But, Ros—you—you can't—you mustn't be mixed up in this. I shan't let you. Don't you see?"
I argued and pleaded and reasoned with him for what seemed a long time before he would consent to tell me the whole story. And when it was told there was nothing new or novel in it. The old tale of an honest man who had not meant to go wrong, but, tempted by one of those wiles of the devil, an "inside tip" on the stock market, had bought heavily on margins, expecting to clear a handsome profit in a short time. The stock was Louisville and Transcontinental and the struggle for its control by certain big interests had made copy for financial writers for nearly a year. George had bought at a time when one syndicate had, so it believed, secured the control.
Then something went wrong in the deal and the shares began to decline in value. He put up more margins and still more, but it continued to decline. Finally under the spur of another "tip," the last of his own savings having gone to the insatiate brokers, he sent, to bolster his account and to save him from utter ruin, some bonds belonging to the bank.
"Not much," he declared, "only about thirty-five hundred dollars' worth, that's all. I never would have done it, Ros, but I was wild, desperate, you see. Here I was, getting ready to be married; Nellie and Cap'n Jed and the rest believing me to be comfortably fixed. It's easy enough now to say that I ought to have gone to her and told her. If I hadn't been certain that the market would turn and I'd be all right in a week, I'd have done it. But I was sure I'd be all right and I couldn't take the chance. I knew what her father would say about her marrying a pauper, and I just couldn't take the risk of losing her; I couldn't. She means more to me than—than—oh, wait until your time comes! Wait until the girl comes along that you care for more than the whole world. And then see what you'd do. See what it would mean to give her up! Just wait—wait and see!"
"Yes, yes," I put in, hastily. "I understand, George. But the stock, Louisville and Transcontinental, how is it now?"
"Just the same. It is dead, practically speaking. It hasn't moved half a point for six weeks. I've been expecting it would, but it hasn't. It's all right; the value is there; I know it. If I could only hang on and wait I could get my money back, part of it, anyhow. But I can't. I can't wait. And the broker people have got those bonds. Ros, I've been fighting this thing for weeks and weeks. I ain't slept a night for years, or so it seems. And next week—next WEEK I was to be married. My God! think of it!"
"Here, here! Don't do that," I urged. "Brace up. You and I must work this out. Wasn't there any one you could go to? Anyone you could borrow the money of? Thirty-five hundred isn't such a lot."
"Whom could I go to? I tried. Lord knows I tried! I did borrow a thousand of Cap'n Elisha Warren; trumped up some excuse or other and got that. But that was all he could let me have. And I know he thought my asking for that was queer."