"Did you consider going straight to Cap'n Dean and—"
"Dean? Cap'n Jed? Her father? Oh, Ros, don't be a fool altogether! I beg your pardon, old man! I don't mean it. You mustn't mind. I ain't responsible for what I say just now. But I couldn't go to Cap'n Jed. You know him. He's as straight and square and honest as he is obstinate and cranky. If I went to him I couldn't tell him the truth. And if I lied he'd suspect and want to know why I needed to borrow money. And Nellie—don't you see? There's the real awfulness of the whole thing. I couldn't go to her and tell her I was a thief. I couldn't see her face when I told her. And yet she's got to know it. She's got to know it!"
"But why? The stock may go up any day and then you could withdraw part of your margin."
He struck the table with another blow. "The stock ain't moved for six weeks, I tell you," he declared. "And, Ros," he leaned forward, his haggard face working with emotion, "those bonds ain't in our safe here, where they should be, and the bank examiner is due here within the next four days. He's at Middleboro now. I 'phoned Bearse, the cashier there, this very forenoon on a matter of business, and he happened to mention that the examiner was in his bank and working his way down the Cape. It's all up with me! All up! And Nellie! poor girl; I can't be here when she finds it out. I know you think I'm a poor specimen of a man, Ros, but I can't face the music. No," desperately, "and I won't."
He was giving way again, but I seized his shoulder and shook him.
"Stop it!" I commanded. "Stop it, George! Let me think. Be quiet now and let me think. There must be a way out somewhere. Let me think."
He leaned back in his chair. "All right," he said, hopelessly; "think, if you want to. Though why you should want to think about a thing like me I don't see. And I used to despise a crook as much as any one! and a coward still more! And now I'm both a crook and a coward."
I knew his cowardice was merely on Nellie's account. George Taylor was no coward in the ordinary sense of the word, nor was he a crook. I rose and paced up and down the room. He watched me listlessly; it was plain that he felt no confidence whatever in my being able to help him. After a time he spoke.
"It's no use, Ros," he said. "Don't worry your head about me; I ain't worth it. If there was any way out, any way at all, I'd have sighted it long ago. There ain't. Take my advice and leave me. You don't want to be mixed up with an embezzler."
I turned on him, impatiently. "I have been mixed up, as you call it, with one before," I said, sharply. "Is my own family record so clean that I need to pretend—there, George! don't be an idiot. Let me think."
The clock chimed ten. I stopped in my walk and turned to him.
"George," I said, "tell me this: If you had the money to buy back these bonds belonging to the bank you would be all right, wouldn't you? If you had it in your hands by to-morrow morning, I mean."
"Yes; IF I had it—but I haven't."
"You could send the money to the brokers and—"
"Send! I wouldn't send; I'd go myself and fetch the bonds back with me. Once I had them in that safe again I—"
"And you would not take any more risks, even if the market dropped and they had to sell out your account? Even if you lost every cent of your investment?"
The fierce earnestness of his answer satisfied even me. "What do you think I am?" he demanded. "Investment be hanged! It's my name as an honest man that I care about. Once let me get that back again and I'll face the poorhouse. Yes, and I'll tell Nellie the truth, all except that I was a thief; I can't tell her that. But I will tell her that I haven't got a cent except my salary. Then if she wants to give me up, all right. I'll bear it as best I can. Or, if she doesn't, and I lose my job here, I'll get another one somewhere else; I'll work at anything. She and I can wait and . . . But what is the use of talking like this? I've been over every inch of the ground a thousand times. There ain't a ray of light anywhere. The examiner will be here, the bonds will be missing, and I—I'll be in jail, or in hell, one or the other."
"No, you won't," I said, firmly.
"I won't! Why not?"
"Because there IS a ray of light. More than a ray. George, you go home and go to bed. To-morrow morning I may have news for you, good news."
The blood rushed to his face. He seized the arm of his chair.
"Good news!" he gasped. "Good news for ME! Ros—Ros, for the Lord's sake, what do you mean? You don't mean you see a way to—"
"Never mind what I mean. But I should like to know what you mean by not coming to me before? What are friends for, if not to help each other? Who told you that I was dead broke?"
"You? Why, you ain't got . . . Have you? Ros Paine, you ain't got thirty-five hundred to spare. Why, you told me yourself—"
"Shut up! Get up from that chair and come with me. Yes, you; and now, this minute. Give me that thing you've got in the drawer there. No, I'll take it myself. You ought to be ashamed of its being there, George. I am ashamed of you, and, if I thought you really meant to use it, I should be still more ashamed. Come! don't keep me waiting."
"Will you do as I tell you?"
I dragged him, almost literally dragged him, from the chair. Then, after extinguishing the lamp, I led him to the door of the bank and locked it, putting the key in my pocket.
"Now," said I, "I want you to make me a promise. I want you to quit behaving like a coward, because you are not one, and promise me that you will go straight home and to bed. I'll see you again the first thing in the morning. Then, I think—yes, I think your troubles, the worst part of them, will be over."
"But, Ros, PLEASE—I can't believe it! Won't you tell me—"
"Not a word. Will you promise me to behave like a man and go home? Or must I go with you?"
"No. I'll—I'll promise. I'll go straight home. But, oh Ros, I can't understand—"
I left him standing there, stammering incoherently like a man awakening from a nightmare, and hurried away.
I could not describe my progress down the dark Lower Road and along the Shore Lane. I do not remember any portion of it. I think I ran most of the way and if I met any one—which is not likely, considering the time—he or she must have thought me crazy. My thoughts were centered upon one fixed purpose. I had made up my mind to do a certain thing and, if possible, to do it that very night. If I did not, if I had time in which to reflect, to consider consequences, I might lose my nerve and it would not be done at all.
It was with a feeling of great relief that, as I came in sight of the Colton house, I saw lights in the rooms on the lower floor. The family, not being native born Denboroites, had not retired even though it was well after ten. I hastened up the long drive, and stood before the big door, my hand upraised to the knocker. And then, just for a moment, I hesitated.
If I lifted that knocker and let it fall; if I summoned the servant and announced that I wished to speak with Mr. Colton; if I did what I had come there to do, it would be all over with me in the village. My new born popularity, the respect which Cap'n Warren and Cap'n Jed and the rest of the townspeople had shown toward me of late, the cordial recognition which had been mine during the past few weeks and which, in spite of pretended indifference, I had come to expect and enjoy, all these would be lost if I persisted in my purpose. My future in Denboro depended upon whether or not I knocked at that door. And it was not too late to back out, even yet. I had only to turn quietly away and tell George, when I saw him in the morning, that I could not help him as I had hoped. And then I thought of his face as I saw it when I entered the bank—and of Nellie's letter to me.
I seized the knocker and rapped sharply.
For a few moments my knock was unanswered. Then I heard footsteps and the door was opened. Johnson, the butler, opened it, and his clerical countenance assumed a most astonished expression when he saw me standing before him.
"Is Mr. Colton in?" I asked.
"What? What—sir?" stammered Johnson. The "sir" was added under protest. He did not wish to show more respect than was absolutely necessary to a countryman, but he scarcely dared speak as disrespectfully as he felt. Therefore he compromised by voicing the respect and looking the other way.
"Is Mr. Colton in?" I repeated.
"I don't know. I—I don't think so—sir."
The windows at my left were, I knew, those of the library, the room where "Big Jim" and I had had our first lively discussion of the Shore Lane matter. I glanced at them.
"I think he is," I said. "In fact I know it; there is his shadow on the curtain. Tell him Mr. Paine wishes to speak with him."
Johnson looked as insolent as he dared, and still hesitated.
"It is very late," he said. "Mr. Colton is not in the 'abit of receiving callers at this time of night and—"
He was interrupted. The door behind him, the door leading from the library to the hall, opened and Colton himself appeared.
"What is it, Johnson?" he asked. "Anything wrong?"
The butler hastened to explain.
"No sir," he said; "nothing wrong exactly, sir. There is a person 'ere to see you, sir, and—"
"To see me, eh? Who is it? Why, hello, Paine! is that you?"
"Mr. Colton," said I, "I am sorry to disturb you at such a late hour, but—"
"Come in, come in," he interrupted. "What are you standing out there for? Johnson, why didn't you ask Mr. Paine in? What do you mean by keeping him out there?"
Mr. Johnson looked troubled.
"It was so late, sir," he stammered, "I thought—"
"You thought! If I had wanted any one to think I never should have hired you. Come in, Paine. Come into the library."
He led the way to the library and I followed him. It was my second visit to the big, handsomely furnished room and again, as on the first occasion, the sight of the books and all the other refinements and luxuries which money brings to its possessor gave me a pang of envy and resentment. It added increased bitterness to the humiliation of my errand. I had left that room defiantly expressing my independence. I had come back to it—
"Sit down," ordered Colton, pulling forward the big, leather-covered chair. "Have a cigar?"
"No thank you."
"Humph! That's what you said when you were here before. You're young, Paine. When you get to be as old as I am you'll never refuse a good cigar, or anything else that is good, when it is offered you. Well, you're still standing. Aren't going to refuse to sit down, are you?"
That was exactly what I was going to do. I would not sit down in that house. I would not accept the slightest courtesy from this man or any of his people. I would get rid of the unpleasant task I had come to do and then go away, never to return. They might make the most of the triumph which was to be theirs, but I would compel them to understand that I was not seeking their favor. I would not accept their patronage and they should know it. This, as I look back at it now, seems silly and childish enough, but I was not myself that night.
"Mr. Colton," said I, ignoring the proffered chair, "I have come to see you on a matter of business."
"Business, eh? Umph! I thought probably you were going to ask me to go fishing with you again. I'm all ready for another tussle with those—what do you call 'em—squid—squit—good Lord! what a name for a decent fish! But I don't care a continental what you call 'em. I'm ready to get at 'em when you say the word."
"My business will not detain either of us long. I—"
"Sit down, man, sit down. You make me nervous standing there."
"No. I won't sit."
He looked at me.
"What is the matter with you?" he asked. "You haven't got a balky digestion, have you? I've been fighting one for the last week. That fool of a country doctor tells me if I'm not careful what I eat I'll keel over pretty soon. I told him I'd eaten what I dashed please ever since I'd had teeth and I wasn't going to quit now. But I do feel like the devil. Look it, don't I?"
He did look ill, that was a fact, though I had not noticed it before and was far from feeling pity for him then. In fact I was rather glad to know that he was uncomfortable. I wanted him to be.
"What is the matter with you?" he demanded. "You look as if you had seen your grandmother's ghost."
I ignored the question. "Mr. Colton," I began again. "You made an offer not long ago."
I had caught his attention at last. He leaned back in his chair.
"I did," he said. "Ye-es, I did. Do you mean you are going to accept it?"
"In a way—yes."
"In a way? What do you mean by that? I tell you frankly, Paine, if you go to work for me there must be no 'ifs' or 'buts' about it. You'll enter my office and you'll do as I, or the men under me, tell you to do."
I was glad he said that, glad that he misunderstood me. It gave me an opportunity to express my feelings toward him—as I was feeling then.
"Don't let that trouble you," I said, sarcastically. "There will be no 'ifs' and 'buts' so far as that is concerned. I have no desire to work for you, Mr. Colton, and I don't intend doing so. That was not the offer I meant."
He was surprised, I am sure, but he did not express astonishment. He bent forward and looked at me more keenly than ever.
"There was only one other offer that I remember making you," he said, slowly. "That was for that land of yours. I offered you five thousand dollars for it. Do you mean you accept that offer?"
"Humph! Paine, we're wasting a lot of time here, it seems to me. My time is more or less valuable, and my digestion is, as I told you, pretty bad. Come! get it over. What do you mean? Are you going to sell me that land?"
He puffed deliberately at his cigar. His gaze did not leave my face.
"Why?" he asked, after a moment.
"That is my own affair. I will sell you the land, but not for five thousand dollars."
His expression changed. He knocked the ashes from his cigar and frowned.
"I see," he sneered. "Humph! Well, I've tried to make it plain to you fellows down here that I couldn't be held up. I thought I'd done it, but evidently I haven't. Five hundred is a good price for that land. Five thousand is ridiculous, but I gave you my reasons for being willing to be robbed that much. That, however, is the limit. I'll give you five thousand, but not another cent. You can take it or get out."
This was better. When he talked like that I could answer him and enjoy it.
"I'll get out very shortly," I said. "You are no more anxious to have that happen than I am. I don't want your other cent. I don't want your five thousand dollars. I'll sell you the land on one condition—no, on two. The first is that you pay me thirty-five hundred dollars for it."
I had upset his composure this time. He forgot to sneer; he even forgot to smoke.
"What?" he cried again. "Thirty-five hundred! Why, I offered you—"
"I know your offer. This is mine: I will sell you the land for thirty-five hundred, and not another cent. That, as you say, is the limit. You can take it or—or I will follow your suggestion and get out."
We looked at each other. His fingers moved toward the match box on the table. He took a match, scratched it, and held it to the end of his cigar. Then he took the cigar from his lips, blew out the match and tossed the latter into the fireplace.
"What is the second condition?" he asked, abruptly.
"That you pay me in cash, in money and not by check, at once."
"At once? Now, do you mean?"
"Yes, now. To-night if possible; if not, no later than nine o'clock to-morrow morning."
"Humph! Do you think I carry thirty-five hundred loose in my change pocket?"
"I don't know. But that is the second condition."
"Humph! . . . Look here, Paine; what—? I offered you the five thousand. That offer holds good."
"I don't accept it. I will sell for thirty-five hundred; no more and no less."
"But why not more?"
"I don't know. Yes, I do, too. You said once that you were willing to pay forty-five hundred for the privilege of having your own way. Perhaps I am willing to sacrifice fifteen hundred for the privilege of having mine. At all events I mean what I say."
"But why just thirty-five? Wouldn't you take thirty-six?"
"No. It is useless to argue, Mr. Colton, and useless to ask my reasons. I have them, and that is enough. Will you accept MY offer?"
He hesitated. The sneer had left his face and his tone when he addressed me was respectful, though there was a curious note of chagrin or dissatisfaction in it. I had expected him to be eager and, perhaps, mockingly triumphant. He was not. He seemed reluctant, almost disappointed.
"I suppose I'll have to," he said. "But, Paine, what is up? Why are you doing this? You're not afraid of me? No, of course you're not. You're not the kind to squeal and lie down because you think the odds are against you . . . Confound you!" with a sudden burst of impatience, "you are enough to upset all the self-conceit a man's got in him. Just as I think I'm beginning to size you up you break loose in a new place."
"Pardon me," I put in, "but I don't see that you are helping to save that valuable time of yours. I understand that you accept. Will you pay me now?"
He rose, threw away his cigar, and, with his hands in his pockets, stood regarding me.
"Your mind is made up, is it?" he asked.
"Humph! Have you thought of what our mutual friend Dean and the rest of the patriots may say when they find this out?"
I had thought of little else all the way from the bank to his door. I was thinking of it then.
"Of course," he added, "that is not my affair, but—"
"It is not."
"You're right; it isn't. Still—hang it all, Paine! I don't often feel any compunctions when I beat a fellow in a game like this, and I did intend to have my own way in this one—"
"Well, you're having it, aren't you?" I put in. "Why talk so much about it?"
"Because I am not so sure I am having it. Of course I can see that, for some reason or other, you need thirty-five hundred dollars. Anyone but you, if they were going to sell, would get the last dime they could squeeze. You won't, because you are as pig-headed as—as—"
"Oh, do cut it short," I snapped. And then, a trifle ashamed of my rudeness, "Excuse me, Mr. Colton, but this isn't exactly pleasant for me and I want to get it over. Will you pay me now?"
"Hold on; let me finish. I was going to say that, if you needed the thirty-five, perhaps I could manage to let you have it."
I stared at him. "Let me have it!" I cried. "Do you mean you'll lend it to me?"
"Why, yes, maybe. You and I have had such a first-rate, square, stand up fight that I rather hate to have it end. I want to lick you, not have you quit before I've really begun to fight. There's no fool philanthropy in this, understand; it is just for my own satisfaction."
I was so taken aback by this totally unexpected offer from the man whom I had insulted a dozen times since I entered his house, that I found it almost impossible to answer.
"What do you say?" he asked.
"No," I faltered. And then more firmly, "No; certainly not. I—I am much obliged to you, Mr. Colton, but—no."
"All right. You know best. I'll take your offer and I will hand you the money at the bank to-morrow morning. Will that do?"
"Not at the bank, Mr. Colton. Send it over to the house, if you can conveniently."
"I'll have it here before ten. My lawyer will draw up the papers and arrange for transfer of title in a few days. What? Going, are you? Good night. Oh—er—Paine, remember that my other offer, that of the place in my office, is open when you're ready to take it."
I shook my head. I had turned to go, but now I turned back, feeling that, perhaps, I should apologize again for my rudeness. After all, he had been kind, very kind, and I had scarcely thanked him. So I turned back to say something, I hardly knew what.
My doing so was a mistake. The door behind me opened and a voice said reproachfully, "Father, are you still here? The doctor said . . . Oh, I beg pardon."
I recognized the voice. Of all voices in the world I wished least to hear it just then. My back was toward the door and I kept it so. If she would only go! If she would only shut that door and go away!
I think she would have gone but her father called her.
"Mabel," he cried, "Mabel, don't go. It's all right. Come in. Paine and I have finished our talk. Nothing more you wished to say, was there, Paine?"
"No," said I. I was obliged to turn now; I could not get out of that room without doing it. So turn I did, and we faced each other.
"Good evening, Miss Colton," I said, with all the calmness I could muster.
She said, "Good evening," distantly and without any enthusiasm, but I saw her glance at her father and then at me and I knew she was wondering what our being together could possibly mean.
"Paine has been making me a little call," explained Colton, his eye twinkling. "Mabel, I'll risk another bet that you can't guess why he came."
"I shall not try," she said, disdainfully.
"Oh, you'd better! No? You won't? Well, then, I'll tell you. He has just sold me that land of his . . . Don't look at me like that; he has. We had a little disagreement as to price, but," with a grin, "I met his figures and we closed the deal. Aren't you going to congratulate him on having come to his senses at last? Come! he's waiting for congratulations."
This was not true. I was waiting for nothing; I was on my way to the door. But, to reach it I was obliged to pass her and our eyes met. My glance wavered, I know, but hers did not. For a moment she looked at me. Then she smiled. Whenever I am tempted to be vain, even now, I remember that smile.
"I congratulate him," she said. "Come, Father; you must go to bed now."
I am not going to attempt a description of my thoughts that night. It would take too long and the description would be wearisome. Other people's miseries are not interesting and I shall not catalog mine. Morning came at last and I rose, bathed my hot face in cold water, and went down stairs. Early as it was, not yet six, I heard Dorinda in the kitchen and, having no desire for conversation, I went out and walked up and down the beach until breakfast time. I had to pretend to eat, but I ate so little that both Lute and Dorinda once more commented upon my lack of appetite. Lute, who had never become fully reconciled to my becoming a member of the working class, hastened to lay the blame for my condition upon my labors at the bank.
"The trouble is," he announced, dogmatically, "the trouble is, Roscoe, that you ain't fitted for bein' shut up astern of a deck. Look at yourself now! Just go into Comfort's room and stand in front of her lookin' glass and look at yourself. There you be, pale and peaked and wore out. Look for all the world just as I done when I had the tonsils two winters ago. Ain't that so, Dorindy?"
His wife's answer was a contemptuous sniff.
"If you mean to say that you looked peaked when you had sore throat," she announced, "then there's somethin' the matter with your mind or your eyesight, one or t'other. You peaked? Why, your face was swelled up like a young one's balloon Fourth of July Day. And as for bein' pale! My soul! I give you my word I couldn't scurcely tell where your neck left off and the strip of red flannel you made me tie 'round it begun."
"Don't make no difference! I FELT pale, anyhow. And I didn't eat no more'n Ros does. You'll have to give in to that, Dorindy. I didn't eat nothin' but beef tea and gruel."
"You et enough of them to float a schooner."
"Maybe I did," with grieved dignity; "maybe I did. But that's no reason why you should set there and heave my sufferin's in my face."
"What is the man talkin' about now? I didn't heave 'em in your face. They come there themselves, same as sore throat sufferin's generally do, and if you hadn't waded around in the snow with leaky boots, because you was too lazy to take 'em to the shoemaker's to be patched, they wouldn't."
Lute drew back from the table. "It's no use!" he declared, "a man can't even be sick in peace in this house. Some wives would have been sorry to see their husbands with one foot in the grave."
"Your feet was in the cookstove oven most of the time. There! there! the more you talk the further from home you get. You started in with Roscoe and the bank and you're in the grave already. If I was you I'd quit afore I went any further. Land knows where you might fetch up if you kept on! I . . . Mercy on us! who's at the kitchen door this time in the mornin'?"
Her husband, ever curious, was on his way to answer the knock already. He came back, a moment later, sputtering with excitement.
"It's that Mr. butler, the Johnson over to Mr. Colton's," he whispered. "I mean it's that Jutler—that—There, Dorindy! you see what sort of a state your hectorin' has worked me into! It's that parson critter who opens Colton's door for him, that's who 'tis. And he wants to see Ros. I tried to find out what for, but he wouldn't tell."
Even Dorinda showed surprise. She looked at the clock, "This hour of the mornin'!" she exclaimed; "what in the world—?"
I hastened to the kitchen, closing the dining-room door behind me just in time to prevent Lute's following me. Johnson, the butler, was standing on the mica slab at the threshold inspecting our humble premises with lofty disdain.
"Mr. Colton sent this to you, sir," he said, handing me an envelope. "He wishes you to send a receipt by me."
I took the envelope and, stepping back out of sight, tore it open. Inside was a check on a New York bank for four thousand dollars. It was made payable to "Bearer." With it was this brief note:
This is the best I can do for you, as I haven't the money on hand. Cash it yourself, take out your thirty-five hundred and hold the additional five hundred until I, or one of the family, call for it. I made the thing payable to Bearer because I imagined you would prefer it that way. Send me some sort of receipt by Johnson; anything will do. I will see my lawyer in a day or two. Meanwhile have your papers, deeds, etc., ready when he calls for them.
JAMES W. COLTON.
For a minute I considered. If I could cash the check at the bank without Taylor's knowledge and get him off to Boston on the early train, I might be able to cover my tracks. It was necessary that they should be covered. Knowing George as I did I knew that he would never consent to my sacrifice. He would not permit me to wreck my future in Denboro to save him. The money must be turned over to the Boston bankers and the bank's bonds once more in the vault where they belonged before he learned where that money came from. Then it would be too late to refuse and too late to undo what had been done. He would have to accept and I might be able to prevail upon him to keep silent regarding the whole affair. I disliked the check with Colton's name upon it; I should have much preferred the cash; but cash, it seemed, could not be had without considerable delay, and with that bank examiner's visit imminent every moment of time was valuable. I folded the check, put it in my pocketbook, and, hastily scribbling a receipt in pencil at the bottom of Colton's note, replaced the latter in the envelope and handed it to Johnson, who departed.
Entering the dining-room I found Dorinda and Lute at the window, peering after the butler.
"By time!" exclaimed Lute, "if I didn't know I should say he was a bigger big-bug than old Colton himself. Look how he struts! He sartin is a dignified lookin' man. I don't see how he ever come to be just hired help."
"Um-hm," sniffed the cynical Mrs. Rogers. "Well; you can get an awful lot of dignity for its board and lodgin'! There's nothin' much more dignified or struts much better'n a rooster, but it's the hens that lay the eggs. What did he want, Roscoe?"
I made some excuse or other for Mr. Johnson's early call and, taking my cap from the rack, hurried from the house. I went "across lots" and, running a good part of the way, reached the bank just as Sam Wheeler was sweeping out. He expressed surprise at my early arrival and wished to know what was up.
"Ain't nothin' wrong, is there, Ros?" asked Sam anxiously. "I saw by the paper that the market was feverish again yesterday."
Sam was an ambitious youth and, being desirous of becoming a banker in the shortest possible time, read the financial page with conscientious thoroughness. I assured him that the market's fever was not contagious—at least I had not contracted the disease—and sent him out to sweep the front steps. As soon as he had gone I opened the safe, found, to my joy, that we had an abundance of currency on hand, cashed the Colton check and locked it securely in the drawer of my own desk. So far I was safe. Now to secure George's safety.
He came in soon after, looking as if, as he had told me, he had not slept for years. He bade Sam good morning and then walked over to my side.
"Well, Ros?" he asked, laying a shaking hand on the desk beside me.
"Not here, George," I whispered. "Come into the directors' room."
I led the way and he followed me. I closed the door behind us, took the thirty-five hundred dollars in notes from my pocket and laid them on the table.
"There's the money, George," I said. "Now you've got just time enough to catch that nine o'clock train for Boston."
I thought, for a moment, he was going to collapse altogether. Then he pounced upon the money, counted it with fingers that trembled so he could scarcely control them, and turned to me.
"Ros—Ros—" he stammered. "Where did you—how did you—Great God, man! I—I—"
"There! there!" I interrupted. "I told you I wasn't a pauper exactly. Put that where you won't lose it and clear out. You haven't any time to argue."
"But—but, Ros, I hadn't ought to take this from you. I don't see where you got it and—"
"That's my business. Will you go?"
"I don't know as I ever can pay you. Lord knows I'll try all my life, but—"
I seized his arm. "George," I urged, impatiently, "you fool, don't waste time. Get that train, do you hear! Those bonds must be in that safe by night. Go!"
The mention of the bonds did what my urging had failed to do. He crammed the bills into his pocket book, thrust the latter into an inside pocket, and rushed from the room. I followed him as far as the outer door. He was running up the road like a wild man. Sam stared after him.
"For mercy sakes!" he cried, "what's the matter with the boss? Has he gone loony?"
"No," I said, turning back to my desk; "he's sane enough, I guess. He's after the train."
"I should think he was after somethin'. Did you see the face he had on him? If he ain't crazy then you and I are, that's all I've got to say."
"All right, Sam," I answered, drawing a long breath, "perhaps that's it. Perhaps you and I are the crazy ones—one of us, at any rate."
All that day I worked hard. I did not go home for lunch, but sent Sam over to Eldredge's store for canned ham and crackers which I ate at my desk. It was a fairly busy day, fortunately, and I could always find some task to occupy my mind. Lute called, at two o'clock, to inquire why I had not been home and I told him that Taylor was away and I should be late for supper. He departed, shaking his head.
"It's just as I said," he declared, "you're workin' yourself sick, that's what you're doin'. You're growin' foolish in the head about work, just the same as Dorindy. And YOU don't need to; you've got money enough. If I had independent means same as you've got I tell you I'd have more sense. One sick invalid in the family's enough, ain't it?"
"No doubt, Lute," I replied. "At all events you must take care of your health. Don't YOU work yourself sick."
Lute turned on me. "I try not to," he said, seriously; "I try not to, but it's a hard job. You know what that wife of mine is cal'latin' to have me do next? Wash the hen house window! Yes sir! wash the window so's the hens can look at the scenery, I presume likely. I says to her, says I, 'That beats any foolishness ever I heard! Next thing you'll want me to put down a carpet in the pigsty, won't ye? You would if we kept a pig, I know.'"
"What did she say to that?" I inquired.
"Oh, the land knows! Somethin' about keepin' one pig bein' trouble enough. I didn't pay much attention. But I shan't wash no hen's window, now you can bet on that!"
I shouldn't have bet much on it. He went away, to spend the next hour in a political debate at Eldredge's, and I wrote letters, needlessly long ones. Closing time came and Sam went home, leaving me to lock up. The train was due at six-twenty, but it was nearly seven before I heard it whistle at the station. I stood at the front window looking up the road and waiting.
I waited only a few minutes, but they were long ones. Then I saw George coming, not running this time, but walking with rapid strides. The crowd, waiting on the post-office steps, shouted at him but he paid no attention. He sprang up the steps and entered the bank. I stepped forward and seized his hand. One look at his face was enough; he had the bonds, I knew it.
"Ros, you here!" he exclaimed. "Is it all right? The examiner hasn't showed up?"
"No," I answered. "You have them, George?"
"Right in my pocket, thank the Lord—and you, Ros Paine. Just let me get them into that safe and I—What! You're not going?"
"Yes, I'm going. I congratulate you, George. I am as glad as you are. Good night."
"But Ros, I want to tell you about it. I want to thank you again. I never shall forget . . . Ros, hold on!"
But I was already at the door. "Good night," I called again, and went out. I went straight home, ate supper, spent a half hour with Mother, and then went to my room and to bed. The excitement was over, for good or bad the thing was done beyond recall, and I suddenly realized that I was very tired. I fell asleep almost immediately and slept soundly until morning. I was too tired even to think.
I had plenty of time to think during the fortnight which followed and there was enough to think about. The lawyer came and the papers were signed transferring to James W. Colton the strip of land over which Denboro had excited itself for months. Each day I sat at my desk expecting Captain Dean and a delegation of indignant citizens to rush in and denounce me as a traitor and a turncoat. Every time Sam Wheeler met me at my arrival at the bank I dreaded to look him in the face, fearing that he had learned of my action and was waiting to question me about it. In spite of all my boasts and solemn vows not to permit "Big Jim" Colton to obtain the Shore Lane I had sold it to him; he could, and it was to be expected that he would, close it at once; Denboro would make its just demand upon me for explanations, explanations which, for George and Nellie's sake, I could not give; and after that the deluge. I was sitting over a powder mine and I braced myself for the explosion.
But hours and days passed and no explosion came. The fishcarts rattled down the Lane without hindrance. Except for the little flurry of excitement caused by the coming wedding at the Dean homestead the village life moved on its lazy, uneventful jog. I could not understand it. Why did Colton delay? He, whose one object in life was to have his own way, had it once more. Now that he had it why didn't he make use of it? Why was he holding back? Out of pity for me? I did not believe it. Much more likely that his daughter, whose pride I had dared to offend, had taken the affair in her hands and this agony of suspense was a preliminary torture, a part of my punishment for presuming to act contrary to her imperial will.
I saw her occasionally, although I tried my best not to do so. Once we passed each other on the street and I stubbornly kept my head turned in the other direction. I would risk no more looks such as she had given me when, in response to her father's would-be humorous suggestion, she had offered me her "congratulations." Once, too, I saw her on the bay, I was aboard the Comfort, having just anchored after a short cruise, and she went by in the canoe, her newest plaything, which had arrived by freight a few days before. A canoe in Denboro Bay was a distinct novelty; probably not since the days of the Indians had one of the light, graceful little vessels floated there, and this one carried much comment among the old salts alongshore. It was the general opinion that it was no craft for salt water.
"Them things," said Zeb Kendrick, sagely, "are all right for ponds or rivers or cricks where there ain't no tide nor sea runnin'. Float anywheres where there's a heavy dew, they say they will. But no darter of mine should go out past the flats in one of 'em if I had the say. It's too big a risk."
"Yup; well, Zeb, you ain't got the say, I cal'late," observed Thoph Newcomb. "And it takes more'n say to get a skiff like that one. They tell me the metal work aboard her is silver-plated—silver or gold, I ain't sure which. Wonder the old man didn't make it solid gold while he was about it. He'd do anything for that girl if she asked him to. And she sartin does handle it like a bird! She went by my dory t'other mornin' and I swan to man if she and the canoe together wan't a sight for sore eyes. I set and watched her for twenty minutes."
"Um—ye-es," grunted Zeb. "And then you charged the twenty minutes in against the day's work quahaugin' you was supposed to be doin' for me, I suppose."
"You can take out the ten cents when you pay me—if you ever do," said Newcomb, gallantly. "'Twas wuth more'n that just to look at her."
The time had been when I should have agreed with Thoph. Sitting in the canoe, bare-headed, her hair tossing in the breeze, and her rounded arms swinging the light paddle, she was a sight for sore eyes, doubtless. But it was not my eyes which were sore, just then. I watched her for a moment and then bent over my engine. I did not look up again until the canoe had disappeared beyond the Colton wharf.
I did not tell Mother that I had sold the land. I intended to do so; each morning I rose with my mind made up to tell her, and always I put off the telling until some other time. I knew, of course, that she should be told; that I ought to tell her rather than to have her learn the news from others as she certainly would at almost any moment, but I knew, too, that even to her I could not disclose my reason for selling. I must keep George's secret as he had kept mine and take the consequences with a close mouth and as much of my old indifference to public opinion as I could muster. But I realized, only too well, that the indifference which had once been real was now only pretense.
I have said very little about George Taylor's gratitude to me, nor his appreciation of what I had done for him. The poor fellow would have talked of nothing else if I had let him.
"You've saved my good name and my life, Ros," he said, over and over again, "and not only my life, but what is a mighty sight more worth saving, Nellie's happiness. I don't know how you did it; I believe yet that there is something behind all this, that you're keeping something from me. I can't see how, considering all you've said to me about your not being well-off, you got that money so quick. But I know you don't want me to talk about it."
"I don't, George," I said. "All I ask of you is just to forget the whole thing."
"Forget! I shan't forget while I live. And, as soon as ever I can scrape it together, I'll pay you back that loan."
He had kept his word, so far as telling Nellie of his financial condition was concerned. He had not, of course, told her of his use of the bank bonds, but he had, as he said he would, told her that, in all probability, he should be left with nothing but his salary.
"I told her she was free to give me up," he said, with emotion, "and what do you suppose she said to me? That she would marry me if she knew she must live in the poorhouse the rest of her days. Yes, and be happy, so long as we could be together. Well, I ain't worth it, and I told her so, but I'll do my best to be worth something; and she shan't have to live in the poorhouse either."
"I don't think there's much danger of that," I said. "And, by the way, George, your Louisville and Transcontinental speculation may not be all loss. You may save something out of it. There has been considerable trading in the stock during the past two days. It is up half a point already, according to the papers. Did you notice it?"
"Yes, I noticed it. But I tell you, Ros, I don't care. I'll be glad to get some of my money back, of course; enough to pay you and Cap'n Elisha anyhow; but I'm so happy to think that Nellie need never know I was a thief that I don't seem to care much for anything else."
Nellie was happy, too. She came to me and told me of her happiness. It was all on George's account, of course.
"The poor fellow had lost money in investments," she said, "and he thought I would not care for him if I found out he was poor. He isn't poor, of course, but if he was it would make no difference to me. I am so glad to see him without that dreadful worried look on his face that I—I—Oh, you must think me awful silly, Roscoe! I guess I am. I know I am. But you are the only one I can talk to in this way about—about him. All Ma wants to talk about now is the wedding and clothes and such, and Pa always treats me as if I was a child. I feel almost as if you were the closest friend I have, and I know George feels the same. He says you have helped him out of his troubles. I was sure you would; that is why I wrote you that letter. We are both SO grateful to you."
Their gratitude and the knowledge of their happiness were my sole consolations in this trying time. They kept me from repenting what I had done. It was hard not to repent. If Colton had only made known his purchase and closed the Lane at once, while my resolution was red hot, I could have faced the wrath of the village and its inevitable consequences fairly well, I believed; but he still kept silent and made no move. I saw him once or twice; on one occasion he came into the bank, but he came only to cash a check and did not mention the subject of the Lane. He did not look well to me and I heard him tell Taylor something about his "damned digestion."
The wedding day came. I, as best man, was busy and thankful for the bustle and responsibility. They occupied my mind and kept it from dwelling on other things. George worked at the bank until noon, getting ready to leave the institution in my charge and that of Dick Small, Henry's brother, who had reported for duty that morning. The marriage was to take place at half past one in the afternoon and the bridal couple were to go away on the three o'clock train. The honeymoon trip was to be a brief one, only a week.
Every able-bodied native of Denboro, man, woman and child, attended that wedding, I honestly believe. It was the best sort of advertising for Olinda Cahoon and Simeon Eldredge, for Olinda had made the gowns worn by the bride and the bride's mother and a number of the younger female guests, and Sim had sold innumerable bottles of a peculiarly penetrating perfume, a large supply of which he had been talked into purchasing by a Boston traveling salesman.
"Smell it, Ros, do ye?" whispered Sim, grinning triumphantly between the points of a "stand-up" collar. "I give you my word when that slick-talkin' drummer sold me all that perfumery, I thought I was stuck sure and sartin. But then I had an idee. Every time women folks come into the store and commenced to talk about the weddin' I says to 'em, says I, 'Can't sell you a couple of handkerchiefs to cry on, can I, Miss So-and-so? Weddin's are great places for sheddin' tears, you know.' If I sold 'em the handkerchiefs all well and good; but if they laughed and said they had a plenty, I got out my sample bottle of 'May Lilock', that's the name of the cologne, and asked 'em to smell of it. 'If you cry with that on your handkerchief,' says I, 'all hands will be glad to have you do it. And only twenty cents a bottle!' You wouldn't believe how much I sold. You can smell this weddin' afore you come in sight of the house, can't ye now."
You could, and you continued to smell it long after you left. My best suit reeked of "May Lilac" weeks later when I took it out of the closet.
Dorinda was there, garbed in rustling black alpaca, her Sunday gown for ten years at least, and made over and "turned" four or five times. Lute was on deck, cutaway coat, "high water" trousers and purple tie, grand to look upon, Alvin Baker and Elnathan Mullet and Alonzo Black and Thoph Newcomb and Zeb Kendrick were, as the Item would say, "among those present" and if Zeb's black cutaway smelled slightly of fish it was, at least, a change from the pervading "May Lilac."
Captain Jed strutted pompously about, monarch of the day. He greeted me genially.
"Hello, Ros!" he said. "You out here? Thought you'd be busy overhaulin' George's runnin' riggin' and makin' sure he was all ready to heave alongside the parson."
"I have been," I answered. "I am on my way back there now."
"All right, all right. Matildy give me fits for not stayin' upstairs until the startin' gun was fired, but I told her that, between her with her eyes full of tears and Olindy Cahoon with her mouth full of pins, 'twas no place for a male man. So I cleared out till everything was shipshape. Say, Ros," he laid his hand on my shoulder and bent to whisper in my ear: "Say, Ros," he said, "I'm glad to see you're takin' my advice."
"Taking your advice?" I repeated, puzzled.
"Yes; about not playin' with fire, you know. I ain't heard of you and the Princess cruisin' together for the past week. Thought 'twas best not to be too familiar with the R'yal family, didn't you? That's right, that's right. We can't take chances. We've got Denboro and the Shore Lane to think about, ain't we?"
I did not answer. I did not risk looking him in the face.
"She's liable to be here most any time, I cal'late," he went on. "Nellie would insist on invitin' her. And I must say that, to be honest, the present she sent is the finest that's come aboard yet. The only thing I've got against her is her bad judgment in pickin' a father. If 'twan't for that I—hello! Who—Why, I believe—"
There was a commotion among the guests and heads were turned toward the door. The captain started forward. I started back. She had entered the room and was standing there, looking about her with smiling interest. I had forgotten that, considering her friendship with Nellie, she was certain to be invited.
She was dressed in a simple, but wonderful, white gown and wore a bunch of lilies of the valley at her bosom. The doorway was decorated with sprays of honeysuckle and green boughs and against this background she made a picture that brought admiring whispers from the people near me. She did not notice me at first and I think I should have escaped by the side door if it had not been for Sim Eldredge. Simeon was just behind me and he darted forward with outstretched hand.
"Why, how d'ye do, Miss Colton!" exclaimed Sim. "You're just in time, ain't ye! Let me get you a chair. Alvin," to Mr. Baker, who, perspiring beneath the unaccustomed dignity of a starched shirt front, occupied a front seat, "get up and let Miss Colton set down."
She looked in Sim's direction and saw me, standing beside him. I had no opportunity to avoid her look now, as I had done when we met in the street. She saw me and I could not turn away. I bowed. She did not acknowledge the bow. She looked calmly past me, through me. I saw, or fancied that I saw, astonishment on the faces of those watching us. Captain Jed stepped forward to greet her and I went into the adjoining room, where George was anxiously awaiting me.
"Good land, Ros!" he exclaimed, with a sigh of relief, "I was beginning to be afraid you'd skipped out and left me to go through it all alone. Say something to brace me up, won't you; I'm scared to death. Say," with a wondering glance at my face, "what's struck YOU? You look more upset than I feel."
I believe I ordered him not to be an idiot. I know I did not "brace him up" to any extent.
It was a very pretty wedding. At least every one said it was, although they say the same of all weddings, I am told. Personally I was very glad when it was over. Nellie whispered in my ear as I offered her my congratulations, "We owe it all to you, Roscoe." George said nothing, but the look he gave me as he wrung my hand was significant. For a moment I forgot myself, forgot to be envious of those to whom the door for happiness was not shut. After all I had opened the door for these two, and that was something.
I walked as far as the corner with Lute and Dorinda. Dorinda's eyes were red and her husband commented upon it.
"I thought a weddin' was supposed to be a joyful sort of thing," he said, disgustedly. "It's usually cal'lated to be. Yet you and the rest of the women folks set and cried through the whole of it. What in time was there to cry about?"
"Oh, I don't know, Luther," replied Dorinda in, for her, an unusually tolerant tone. "Perhaps it's because we've all been young once and can't forget it."
"I don't forget, no more'n you do. I ain't so old that I can't remember that fur back, I hope. But it don't make me feel like cryin'."
"Well, all right. We won't argue about it. Let's be pleasant as we can, for once."
Now that is where Lute should have taken the hint and remained silent. At least he should have changed the subject. But he was hot and uncomfortable and, I suspect, his Sunday shoes were tight. He persisted.
"Huh!" he sniffed; "I don't see's you've given me no sensible reason for cryin'. If I recollect right you didn't cry at your own weddin'."
His wife turned on him. She looked him over from head to foot.
"Didn't I?" she said, tartly. "Well, maybe not. But if I'd realized what was happenin' to me, I should."
"Lute," said I, as I parted from them at the corner, "I am going to the bank for a little while. Then I think I shall take a short run down the bay in the Comfort. Did you fill her tank with gasolene as I asked you to?"
Lute stopped short. "There!" he exclaimed, "I knew there was somethin' I forgot. I'll do it soon's ever I get home."
"When you get home," observed Dorinda, firmly, "you'll wash that henhouse window."
"Now, Dorinda, if that ain't just like you! Don't you hear Roscoe askin' me about that gas? I've had that gas in my head ever since yesterday."
"Um-hm," wearily. "Well, I shouldn't think a little extry more or less would make much difference. Never mind, don't waste any more on me. Get the gas out of your head, if Roscoe wants you to. You can wash the window afterward."
Lute's parting words were that he would fill that tank the very first thing. If he had—but there! he didn't.
The fog had come almost without warning. When, after leaving the bank, at four o'clock or thereabouts, I walked down to the shore and pulled my skiff out to where the Comfort lay at her moorings, there had not been a sign of it. Now I was near the entrance of the bay, somewhere abreast Crow Point, and all about me was gray, wet blankness. Sitting in the stern of the little launch I could see perhaps a scant ten feet beyond the bow, no more.
It was the sudden shift of the wind which had brought the fog. When I left the boat house there had been a light westerly breeze. This had died down to a flat calm, and then a new breeze had sprung up from the south, blowing the fog before it. It rolled across the water as swiftly as the smoke clouds roll from a freshly lighted bonfire. It blotted Denboro from sight and moved across the bay; the long stretch of beach disappeared; the Crow Point light and Ben Small's freshly whitewashed dwellings and outbuildings were obliterated. In ten minutes the Comfort was, to all appearances, alone on a shoreless sea, and I was the only living creature in the universe.
I was not troubled or alarmed. I had been out in too many fogs on that very bay to mind this one. It was a nuisance, because it necessitated cutting short my voyage, although that voyage had no objective point and was merely an aimless cruise in search of solitude and forgetfulness. The solitude I had found, the forgetfulness, of course, I had not. And now, when the solitude was more complete than ever, surrounded by this gray dismalness, with nothing whatever to look at to divert my attention, I knew I should be more bitterly miserable than I had been since I left that wedding. And I had been miserable and bitter enough, goodness knows.
Home and the village, which I had been so anxious to get away from, now looked inviting in comparison. I slowed down the engine and, with an impatient growl, bent over the little binnacle to look at the compass and get my bearings before pointing the Comfort's nose in the direction of Denboro. Then my growl changed to an exclamation of disgust. The compass was not there. I knew where it was. It was on my work bench in the boat house, where I had put it myself, having carried it there to replace the cracked glass in its top with a new one. I had forgotten it and there it was.
I could get along without it, of course, but its absence meant delay and more trouble. In a general way I knew my whereabouts, but the channel was winding and the tide was ebbing rapidly. I should be obliged to run slowly—to feel my way, so to speak—and I might not reach home until late. However, there was nothing else to do, so I put the helm over and swung the launch about. I sat in the stern sheets, listening to the dreary "chock-chock" of the propeller, and peering forward into the mist. The prospect was as cheerless as my future.
Suddenly, from the wet, gray blanket ahead came a call. It was a good way off when I first heard it, a call in a clear voice, a feminine voice it seemed to me.
I did not answer. I took it for granted that the call was not addressed to me. It came probably, from the beach at the Point, and might be Mrs. Small hailing her husband, though it did not sound like her voice. Several minutes went by before it was repeated. Then I heard it again and nearer.
"Hello! Hello-o-o! Where are you?"
That was not Mrs. Small, certainly. Unless I was away off in my reckoning the Point was at my right, and the voice sounded to the left. It must come from some craft afloat in the bay, though before the fog set in I had seen none.
"Hello-o! Hello, the motor boat!"
"Hello!" I answered. "Boat ahoy! Where are you?"
"Here I am." The voice was nearer still. "Where are you? Don't run into me."
I shifted my helm just a bit and peered ahead. I could see nothing. The fog was thicker than ever; if that were possible.
"Where are you?" repeated the unseen voyager, and to my dismay, the hail came from the right this time.
"Don't move!" I shouted. "Stay where you are. I will keep shouting . . . LOOK OUT!"
Out of the fog to starboard a long dark shadow shot, silent and swift. It was moving directly across the Comfort's bow. I jammed the wheel over and the launch swung off, but not enough. It struck the canoe, for it was a canoe, a glancing blow and heeled it down to the water's edge. There was a scrape, a little scream, and two hands clutched at the Comfort's rail. I let go the wheel, sprang forward and seized the owner of the hands about the waist. The canoe, half full of water, disappeared somewhere astern. I swung Mabel Colton aboard the launch.
I think she spoke first. I do not remember saying anything, and I think it must have been at least a full minute before either of us broke the silence. She lay, or sat, upon the cockpit floor, her shoulders supported by the bench surrounding it, just where I had placed her after lifting her over the rail. I knelt beside her, staring as if she were a spirit instead of a real, and rather damp, young lady. And she stared at me. When she spoke her words were an echo of my thought.
"It IS you?" she gasped.
"This—this is the third time."
Another interval of silence. Then she spoke once more and her tone was one expressing intense conviction.
"This," she said, slowly, "is getting to be positively ridiculous."
I did not deny it. I said nothing.
She sat up. "My canoe—" she faltered.
The mention of the canoe brought me partially to my senses. I realized that I was kneeling on the deck of a launch that was pounding its way through the fog with no one at the helm. I sprang to my feet and seized the wheel. That my doing so would be of little use, considering that the Comfort might be headed almost anywhere by this time, did not occur to me. Miss Colton remained where she was.
"My canoe—" she repeated.
I was awakening rapidly. I looked out into the mist and shook my head.
"I am afraid your canoe has gone," I said. And then, as the thought occurred to me for the first time, "You're not hurt, I hope? I dragged you aboard here rather roughly, I am afraid."
"No, I am not hurt. But—where are we?"
"I don't know, exactly. Somewhere near the mouth of the bay, that is all I can be sure of. You, are certain you are not hurt? You must be wet through."
She got upon her feet and, leaning over the Comfort's rail, gazed about her.
"I am all right," she answered. "But don't you know where you are?"
"Before the fog caught me I was nearly abreast the Point. I was running at half speed up the channel when I heard your hail. Where were you?"
"I was just beyond your boat house, out in the middle of the bay. I had come out for a paddle before dinner. I did not notice the fog until it was all about me. Then I think I must have been bewildered. I thought I was going in the direction of home, but I could not have been—not if you were abreast the Point. I must have been going directly out to sea."
"You are wet," I said, anxiously. "There is a storm coat of mine in the locker forward. Won't you put that about your shoulders? It may prevent your taking cold."
"No, thank you. I am not wet, at all; or, at least, only my feet and the bottom of my skirt. I shall not take cold."
"Please don't worry. I am all right, or shall be as soon as I get home."
"I am very sorry about your canoe."
"It doesn't matter."
Her answers were short now. There was a different note in her voice. I knew the reason of the change. Now that the shock and the surprise of our meeting were over she and I were resuming our old positions. She was realizing that her companion was the "common fellow" whose "charming and cultivated society" was not necessary to her happiness, the fellow to whom she had scornfully offered "congratulations" and whom she had cut dead at the Deans' that very afternoon. I made no more suggestions and expressed no more sympathy.
"I will take you home at once," I said, curtly.
"If you please."
That ended conversation for the time. She seated herself on the bench near the forward end of the cockpit and kept her head turned away from me. I, with one hand upon the wheel—a useless procedure, for I had no idea where the launch might be headed—looked over the rail and listened to the slow and regular beat of the engine. Suddenly the beat grew less regular. The engine barked, hiccoughed, barked again but more faintly, and then stopped altogether.
I knew what was the matter. Before I reached the gasolene tank and unscrewed the little cover I knew it. I thrust in the gauge stick and heard it strike bottom, drew it out and found it, as I expected, dry to the very tip. I had trusted, like an imbecile, to Lute. Lute had promised to fill that tank "the very first thing," and he had not kept his promise.
There was not a pint of gasolene aboard the Comfort; and it would be my cheerful duty to inform my passenger of the fact!
She did not wait for me to break the news. She saw me standing there, holding the gauge stick in my hand, and she asked the natural question.
"What is the matter?" she demanded.
I swallowed the opinion of Mr. Rogers which was on the tip of my tongue.
"I am sorry," I stammered, "but—but—well, we are in trouble, I am afraid."
"In trouble?" she said coldly. "What trouble do you mean?"
"Yes. The fact is, we have run out of gasolene. I told my man, Rogers, to fill the tank and he hasn't done it."
She leaned forward to look at me.
"Hasn't done it?" she repeated. "You mean—why, this boat cannot go without gasolene, can it?"
"Not very well; no."
"Then—then what are we going to do?"
"Anchor and wait, if I can."
"Wait! But I don't wish to wait. I wish to be taken home, at once."
"I am sorry, but I am afraid that is impossible."
I was on my way forward to where the anchor lay, in the bow. She rose and stepped in front of me.
"Yes, Miss Colton."
"I tell you I do not wish you to anchor this boat."
"I am sorry but it is the only thing to do, under the circumstances."
"I do not wish it. Stop! I tell you I will not have you anchor."
"Miss Colton, we must do one of two things, either anchor or drift. And if we drift I cannot tell you where we may be carried."
"I don't care."
"Yes," with scornful emphasis, "I presume you do."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean—never mind what I mean."
"But, as I have explained to you, the gasolene—"
"Nonsense! Do you suppose I believe that ridiculous story?"
"Believe it?" I gazed at her uncomprehendingly. "Believe it," I repeated. "Don't you believe it?"
"Miss Colton, do you mean that you think I am not telling you the truth? That I am lying?"
"Well," fiercely, "and if I did, would it be so astonishing, considering—considering the TRUTHS you have told me before?"
I made no further effort to pass her. Instead I stepped back.
"Would you mind telling me," I demanded, with deliberate sarcasm, "what possible reason you think I might have for wishing to keep you here?"
"I shall tell you nothing. And—and I will not have you anchor this boat."
"Is it your desire then that we drift—the Lord knows where?"
"I desire you to start that engine and take me home."
"I cannot start the engine."
"I don't believe it."
For a moment I hesitated. Then I did what was perhaps the most senseless thing I ever did in all my life, which is saying considerable. I turned my back on her and on the anchor, and seated myself once more in the stern sheets. And we drifted.
I do not know how long we drifted before I regained my sanity. It must have been a good while. When I first returned to my seat by the wheel it was with the firm determination to allow the Comfort to drift into the bottomless pit rather than to stir hand or foot to prevent it. In fact that particular port looked rather inviting than otherwise. Any torments it might have in store could not be worse than those I had undergone because of this girl. I sat, silent, with my gaze fixed upon the motionless engine. I heard my passenger move once or twice, but I did not look at her.
What brought me to my senses was the boat hook, which had been lying on the seat beside me, suddenly falling to the floor. I started and looked over the rail. The water, as much of it as I could see through the fog, was no longer flat and calm. There were waves all about us, not big ones, but waves nevertheless, long, regular swells in the trough of which the Comfort rocked lazily. There was no wind to kick up a sea. This was a ground swell, such as never moved in Denboro Bay. While I sat there like an idiot the tide had carried us out beyond the Point.
With an exclamation I sprang up and hurried forward. Miss Colton was sitting where I had left her.
"What is it?" she asked. "What are you going to do?"
"I am going to anchor," I said.
"I do not wish you to anchor."
"I can't help that. I must. Please stand aside, Miss Colton."
She tried to prevent me, but I pushed her away, not too gently I am afraid, and clambered forward to the bow, where the anchor lay upon its coil of line. I threw it overboard. The line ran out to its very end and I waited expectantly for the jerk which would tell me that the anchor had caught and was holding. But no jerk came. Reaching over the bow I tried the line. It was taut and heavy. Then I knew approximately how far we had drifted. We were beyond the shoal making out from Crow Point over the deep water beyond. My anchor rope was not long enough to reach the bottom.
Still I was not alarmed. I was provoked at my own stubbornness which had gotten us into this predicament and more angry than ever at the person who was the cause of that stubbornness. But I was not frightened. There were other shoals further out and I left the anchor as it was, hoping that it might catch and hold on one of them. I went back once more to my seat by the wheel.
Then followed another interval of silence and inaction. From astern and a good way off sounded the notes of a bell. From the opposite direction came a low groan, indescribably mournful and lonely.
My passenger heard it and spoke.
"What was that?" she demanded, in a startled tone.
"The fog horn at Mackerel Island, the island at the mouth of Wellmouth harbor," I answered.
"And that bell?"
"That is the fog bell at Crow Point."
"At Crow Point? Why, it can't be! Crow Point is in Denboro Bay, and that bell is a long way behind us."
"Yes. We are a mile or more outside the Point now. The tide has carried us out."
"Carried us—Do you mean that we are out at sea?"
"Not at sea exactly. We are in Cape Cod Bay."
"But—why, we are still drifting, aren't we? I thought you had anchored."
"I tried to, but I was too late. The water is too deep here for the anchor to reach bottom."
"But—but what are you going to do?"
"Nothing at present. There is nothing I can do. Sit down, please."
"Nothing! Nothing! Do you mean that you propose to sit there and let us be carried out to sea?"
"We shall not be carried far. There is no wind. When the tide turns we shall probably be carried in again."
"But," sharply, "why don't you do something? Can't you row?"
"I have only one oar."
"But you must do something. You MUST. I—I—It is late! it is growing dark! My people! What will they think?"
"I am sorry, Miss Colton."
"Sorry! You are not sorry! If you were you would do something, instead of sitting there as—as if you enjoyed it. I believe you do enjoy it. You are doing it purposely to—to—"
"To what, pray?"
"But I do mind. You have accused me of lying, Miss Colton, and of keeping you here purposely. What do you mean by it?"
"I mean that—that—Oh, you know what I mean! You hate me and you hate my father, and you are trying to—to punish us for—for—"
I had heard enough. I did not propose to hear any more.
"Miss Colton," I interrupted, sternly, "stop! this is silly. I assure you that I am as anxious to end this—excursion—of ours as you can be. Your being afloat in Denboro Bay in a canoe was your own recklessness and not my fault. Neither was it my fault that the launch collided with your canoe. I called to you not to move, but to stay where you were. And, moreover, if you had permitted me to anchor when I first attempted to do so we should not be in this scrape. I shall get you out of it just as quick as I can. In order that I may do so I shall expect you to stop behaving like a child and do as I tell you. Sit down on that bench and keep still."
This had the effect I meant it to. She looked at me as if she could not believe she had heard aright. But I met her gaze squarely, and, with a shudder of disgust, or fear, I do not know which, she turned her back upon me and was silent. I went forward to the cuddy, found the tin horn which, until that moment, I had forgotten, and, returning, blew strident blasts upon it at intervals. There was little danger of other craft being in our vicinity, but I was neglecting no precautions.
The bell at Crow Point sounded further and further astern. The twilight changed to dusk and the dusk to darkness. The fog was as thick as ever. It was nearly time for the tide to turn.
Suddenly there was a jerk; the launch quivered, and swung about.
"Oh! what was that?" demanded Miss Colton, shortly.
"The anchor," I answered. "We have reached the outer shoal."
"And," hesitatingly, "shall we stay here?"
"Unless . . . Hush! listen!"
There was an odd rushing sound from the darkness astern, a sort of hiss and low, watery roar. I rushed to the bow and dragged the anchor inboard with all my strength. Then I ran to the wheel. I had scarcely reached it when I felt a hand on my arm.
"What is it?" asked the young lady, her voice quivering. "Oh, what is it?"
"Wind," I answered. "There is a squall coming. Sit down! Sit down!"
She hesitated and I seized her arm and forced her down upon the bench beside me. I threw the helm over. The rushing sound grew nearer. Then came a blast of wind which sent my cap flying overboard and the fog disappeared as if it had been a cloth snatched away by a mighty hand. Above us was a black sky, with stars showing here and there between flying clouds, and about us were the waves, already breaking into foam upon the shoal.
The Comfort rocked and wallowed in the trough. We were being driven by the wind away from the shoal, but not fast enough. Somehow or other we must get out of that dangerous neighborhood. I turned to my companion. She had not spoken since the squall came.
"Miss Colton," I said, "give me your hands."
I presume she could not imagine what I meant. No doubt, too, my tone and the request frightened her. She hesitated. I seized her hands and placed them on the spokes of the wheel.
"I want you to hold that wheel just as it is," I commanded. "I must go forward and get steerage way on this craft somehow, or we shall capsize. Can you hold it, do you think?"
"Yes; I—I think so."
I left her, went to the cuddy and dragged out the small canvas tarpaulin which I used to cover the engine at night. With this, a cod line, the boathook, and my one oar I improvised a sort of jury rig which I tied erect at the forward end of the cockpit. Then I went aft and took the wheel again. The tarpaulin made a poor apology for a sail, but I hoped it might answer the purpose well enough to keep the Comfort before the wind.
It did. Tacking was, of course, out of the question, but with the gale astern the launch answered her helm and slid over the waves instead of rolling between them. I sighed in relief. Then I remembered my passenger sitting silent beside me. She did not deserve consideration, but I vouchsafed a word of encouragement.
"Don't be frightened," I said. "It is only a stiff breeze and this boat is seaworthy. We are all right now."
"But why did you take up the anchor?"
By way of answer I pointed aft over the stern. In the darkness the froth of the shoal gleamed white. I felt her shudder as she looked.
"Where are we going now—please?" she asked, a moment later.
"We are headed for the Wellmouth shore. It is the only direction we can take. If this wind holds we shall land in a few hours. It is all deep water now. There are no more shoals."
"But," anxiously, "can we land when we reach there? Isn't it a bad coast?"
"Not very. If we can make Mackerel Island we may be able to get ashore at the light or anchor in the lee of the land. It is all right, Miss Colton. I am telling you the truth. Strange as it may seem to you, I really am."
I could not help adding the last bit of sarcasm. She understood. She drew away on the bench and asked no more questions.
On drove the Comfort. The first fierceness of the squall had passed and it was now merely what I had called it, a stiff breeze. Out here in the middle of the bay the waves were higher and we shipped some spray over the quarter. The air was sharp and the chill penetrated even my thick jacket.
"You must be cold," I said. "Aren't you?"
"But you must be. Take the wheel a moment."
"I am not cold."
"Take the wheel."
She took it. I groped about in the cuddy again, got out my storm coat, an old pea jacket which I wore on gunning expeditions, and brought it to her.
"Slip this on," I said.
"I do not care for it."
"Put it on."
"Mr. Paine," haughtily, "I tell you . . . . oh!"
I had wrapped the coat about her shoulders and fastened the upper button.
"Now sit down on the deck here," I ordered. "Here, by my feet. You will be below the rail there and out of the wind."
To my surprise she obeyed orders, this time without even a protest. I smiled grimly. To see her obey suited my humor. It served her right. I enjoyed ordering her about as if I were mate of an old-time clipper and she a foremast hand. She had insulted me once too often and she should pay for it. Out here social position and wealth and family pride counted for nothing. Here I was absolute master of the situation and she knew it. All her life she would remember it, the humiliation of being absolutely dependent upon me for life and safety and warmth. I looked down at her crouching at my feet, and then away over the black water. The Comfort climbed wave after wave.
The tone was very low but I heard it.
I came out of my waking dream—it was not a pleasant one—and answered.
"Yes?" I said.
"Where are we?"
"We are making fair progress, everything considered. Are you warmer now?"
She said no more, nor did I. Except for the splash of the spray and the flapping of the loose ends of the tarpaulin, it was quiet aboard the Comfort. Quiet, except for an odd sound in the shadow by my knee. I stooped and listened.
"Miss Colton," I said, quickly. "What is it?"
No answer. Yet I heard the sound again.
"What is it, Miss Colton?" I repeated. "What is the matter? Why are you crying?"
"I—I am NOT crying," indignantly. And on the very heels of the denial came a stifled sob.
That sob went to my heart. A great lump rose in my own throat. My brain seemed to be turning topsy-turvy. A moment before it had been filled with bitterness and resentment and vengeful thoughts. Now these had vanished and in their place came crowding other and vastly different feelings. She was crying, sobbing there alone in the dark at my feet. And I had treated her like a brute!
"Miss Colton," I pleaded, in an agony of repentance, "what is it? Is there anything I can do? Are you still cold? Take this other coat, the one I have on. I don't need it, really. I am quite warm."
"I am not cold."
"Oh, please don't speak to me! PLEASE!"
I closed my lips tightly and clutched the wheel with both hands. Oh, I had been a brute, a brute! I should have known that she was not herself, that she was frightened and nervous and distraught. I should have been considerate and forbearing. I should have remembered that she was only a girl, hysterical and weak. Instead I had—
"Miss Colton," I begged, "please don't. Please!"
No answer; only another sob. I tried again.
"I have been a cad," I cried. "I have treated you abominably. I don't expect you to forgive me, but—"
"I—I am so frightened!" The confession was a soliloquy, I think; not addressed to me at all. But I heard it and forgot everything else. I let go of the wheel altogether and bent over her, both hands outstretched, to—the Lord knows what. I was not responsible just then.
But while I still hesitated, while my hands were still in the air above her, before they touched her, I was brought back to sanity with a rude shock. A barrel or so of cold water came pouring over the rail and drenched us both. The launch, being left without a helmsman, had swung into the trough of the sea and this was the result.
I am not really sure what happened in the next few seconds. I must, I imagine, have seized the wheel with one hand and my passenger with the other. At any rate, when the smoke, so to speak, had cleared, the Comfort was headed on her old course once more, I was back on the bench by the wheel, Mabel Colton's head was on my shoulder, and I was telling her over and over that it was all right now, there was no danger, we were perfectly safe, and various inanities of that sort.
She was breathing quickly, but she sobbed no more. I was glad of that.
"You are sure you are not hurt?" I asked, anxiously.
"Yes—yes, I think so," she answered, faintly. "What was it? I—I thought we were sinking."
"So did I for a moment. It was all my fault, as usual. I let go the wheel."
"Did you? Why?"
"I don't know why." This was untrue; I did. "But you are wet through," I added, remorsefully. "And I haven't another dry wrap aboard."
"Never mind. You are as wet as I am."
"Yes, but I don't mind. I am used to it. But you—"
"I am all right. I was a little faint, at first, I think, but I am better now." She raised her head and sat up. "Where are we?" she asked.
"We are within a few miles of the Wellmouth shore. That light ahead is the Mackerel Island light. We shall be there in a little while. The danger is almost over."
"You are cold!" I cried. "Of course you are! If I only had another coat or something. It is all my fault."
"Don't say that," reproachfully. "Where should I have been if it had not been for you? I was paddling directly out toward those dreadful shoals. Then you came, just as you have done before, and saved me. And," in a wondering whisper, "I knew it was you!"
I did not ask her what she meant; I seemed to understand perfectly.
"Yes," I said.
"But I tell you I knew it was you," she repeated. "I did not know—I did not suspect until the moment before the collision, before the launch came in sight—then, all at once, I knew."
"Yes. That was when I knew."
She turned and gazed at me.
"YOU knew?" she gasped, hysterically. "Why—what do you mean?"
"I can't explain it. Just before your canoe broke through the fog I knew, that is all."
It was unexplainable, but it was true. Call it telepathy or what you will—I do not know what it was—I am certain only that, although I had not recognized her voice, I had suddenly known who it was that would come to me out of the fog. And she, too, had known! I felt again, with an almost superstitious thrill, that feeling of helplessness which had come over me that day of the fishing excursion when she rode through the bushes to my side. It was as if she and I were puppets in the hands of some Power which was amusing itself at our expense and would have its way, no matter how we might fight against it.
She spoke as if she were struggling to awaken from a dream.
"But it can't be," she protested. "It is impossible. Why should you and I—"
"I don't know . . . Unless—"
I closed my lips on the words that were on the tip of my tongue. That reason was more impossible than all else.
"Nothing," I stammered.
She did not repeat her question. I saw her face, a dainty silhouette against the foam alongside, turned away from me. I gazed at it until I dared gaze no longer. Was I losing my senses altogether? I—Ros Paine—the man whose very name was not his own? I must not think such thoughts. I scarcely dared trust myself to speak and yet I knew that I must. This silence was too dangerous. I took refuge in a commonplace.
"We are getting into smoother water," I said. "It is not as rough as it was, do you think?"
If she heard the remark she ignored it. She did not turn to look at me. After a moment she said, in a low voice:
"I can't understand."
I supposed her to be still thinking of our meeting in the fog.
"I cannot understand myself," I answered. "I presume it was a coincidence, like our meeting at the pond."
She shook her head. "I did not mean that," she said. "I mean that I cannot understand how you can be so kind to me. After what I said, and the way I have treated you; it is wonderful!"
I was obliged to wait another moment before I could reply. I clutched the wheel tighter than ever.
"The wonderful part of it all," I said, earnestly, "is that you should even speak to me, after my treatment of you here, to-night. I was a brute. I ordered you about as if—"
"Hush! Don't! please don't. Think of what I said to you! Will you forgive me? I have been so ungrateful. You saved my life over and over again and I—I—"
"Stop! Don't do that! If you do I shall—Miss Colton, please—"
She choked back the sob. "Tell me," she said, a moment later, this time looking me directly in the face, "why did you sell my father that land?"
It was my turn to avoid her look. I did not answer.
"I know it was not because of the money—the price, I mean. Father told me that you refused the five thousand he offered and would accept only a part of it; thirty-five hundred, I think he said. I should have known that the price had nothing to do with it, even if he had not told me. But why did you sell it?"
I would have given all I had, or ever expected to have, in this world, to tell her the truth. For the moment I almost hated George Taylor.
"Oh, I thought I might as well, give in then as later," I answered, with a shrug. "It was no use fighting the inevitable."
"That was not it. I know it was not. If it had been you would have taken the five thousand. And I know, too, that you meant what you said when you told me you never would sell. I have known it all the time. I know you were telling me the truth."
I was astonished. "You do?" I cried. "Why, you said—"
"Don't! I know what I said, and I am so ashamed. I did not mean it, really. For a moment, there in the library, when Father first told me, I thought perhaps you—but I did not really think it. And when he told me the price, I KNEW. Won't you tell me why you sold?"
"I can't. I wish I could."
"I believe I can guess."
I started. "You can GUESS?" I repeated.
"Yes. I think you wanted the money for some purpose, some need which you had not foreseen. And I do not believe it was for yourself at all. I think it was for some one else. Wasn't that it?"
I could not reply. I tried to, tried to utter a prompt denial, but the words would not come. Her "guess" was so close to the truth that I could only stammer and hesitate.
"It was," she said. "I thought so. For your mother, wasn't it?"
"No, no. Miss Colton, you are wrong. I—"
"I am not wrong. Never mind. I suppose it is a secret. Perhaps I shall find out some day. But will you forgive me for being so hateful? Can you? What is the matter?"
"Nothing—nothing. I—you are too good to me, that is all. I don't deserve it."
"Hush! And we will be friends again?"
"Yes. . . . . Oh, no! no! I must not think of it. It is impossible."
"Must not think of it? When I ask you to? Can't you forgive me, after all?"
"There was nothing to forgive."
"Yes, there was, a great deal. Is there something else? Are you still angry with me because of what I said that afternoon at the gate?"
"No, of course not."
"It was hateful of me, I know. But I could see that you wished to avoid me and I was provoked. Besides, you have punished me for that. You have snubbed me twice since, sir."
"I snubbed YOU?"
"Yes—twice. Once when we met in the street. You deliberately turned away and would not look at me. And once when I passed you in the canoe. You saw me—I know you did—but you cut me dead. That is why I did not return your bow to-day, at the wedding."
"But you had said—I thought—"
"I know. I had said horrid things. I deserved to be snubbed. There! now I have confessed. Mayn't we be friends?"