"I . . . Oh, no, we must not, for your sake. I—"
"For my sake! But I wish it. Why not?"
I turned on her. "Can't you see?" I said, despairingly. "Look at the difference between us! You are what you are and I—"
She interrupted me. "Oh," she cried, impatiently, "how dare you speak so? How dare you believe that money and—all the rest of it influences me in my friendships? Do you think I care for that?"
"I did not mean money alone. But even that Miss Colton, that evening when we returned from the trip after weakfish, you and your father and I, I heard—I did not mean to hear but I did—what your mother said when she met you. She said she had warned you against trusting yourself to 'that common fellow,' meaning me. That shows what she thinks. She was right; in a way she was perfectly right. Now you see what I mean by saying that friendship between us is impossible?"
I had spoken at white heat. Now I turned away. It was settled. She must understand now.
"Yes, Miss Colton."
"I am sorry you heard that. Mother—she is my mother and I love her—but she says foolish things sometimes. I am sorry you heard that, but since you did, I wish you had heard the rest."
"Yes. I answered her by suggesting that she had not been afraid to trust me in the care of Victor—Mr. Carver. She answered that she hoped I did not mean to compare Mr. Carver with you. And I said—"
"Yes? You said—?"
"I said," the tone was low but I heard every syllable, "I said she was right, there was no comparison."
"You said THAT!"
"You said it! And you meant—?"
"I meant—I think I meant that I should not be afraid to trust you always—anywhere."
Where were my good resolutions—my stern reasons to remember who and what I was—to be sane, no matter at what cost to myself? I do not know where they were; then I did not care. I seized her hand. It trembled, but she did not draw it away.
"Mabel—" I cried. "Mabel—"
The Comfort shook as the bow of a dory scraped along her starboard quarter. A big red hand clasped the rail and its mate brandished a good-sized club before my eyes.
"Now," said a determined voice, "I've got ye at last! This time I've caught ye dead to rights! Now, by godfreys, you'll pay me for them lobsters!"
If I had been giving undivided attention to my combined duties as steersman and pilot, instead of neglecting them for other and more engrossing matters, I should, doubtless, have seen the dory before. As it was I had not seen it at all, nor heard the oars. It had sneaked up on the Comfort out of the darkness and its occupant had laid us aboard as neatly as you please.
I was, to say the least, startled and surprised. I dodged the threatening club and turned a dazed face toward the person brandishing it. He appeared to be a middle-sized, elderly person, in oilskins and souwester, and when he spoke a gray whisker wagged above the chin strap of the souwester.
"Who in blazes are you?" I demanded, as soon as I could get the words together.
"Never you mind that. You know who I be all right enough. Be you goin' to pay me for them lobsters? That's what I want to know."
"Them lobsters you've been stealin' out of my pots for the last fortnight."
"I have been stealing?"
"Yes, you. I been layin' for you all night long. I don't know who you be, but you'll pay for them lobsters or come along with me to the lock-up, one or t'other."
I looked about, over the water. The light toward which I had been trying to steer blazed dead ahead, surprisingly near and bright. Except for that, however, there was no sign of anything except darkness and waves.
"Look here, my man," I said. "I haven't stolen your lobsters; but—"
"I know better. I don't know who you be, but I'd know you was a thief if I run acrost you in prayer-meetin'. Just to look at you is enough."
I heard a hysterical giggle from the bench beside me. Evidently the person with the club heard it, too, for he leaned forward to look.
"So there's two of ye, eh!" he said. "Well, by godfreys, I don't care if there's a million! You'll pay for them lobsters or go to the lock-up."
I laughed aloud. "Very well," I said. "I am agreeable."
"You're agreeable! What do you mean by that? This ain't no laughin' matter, I'll tell you that."
I laughed again. "I don't care what you tell me," I observed. "And if you will take us somewhere ashore—to the lock-up or anywhere else—I shall be much obliged."
The occupant of the dory seemed to be puzzled. He leaned forward once more.
"What sort of talk is that?" he demanded. "Where's my lobsters? . . . Hey! What? I swan to man, I believe one of ye's a woman! Have the females turned thieves, too?"
"I don't know. See here, my friend, my name is Paine, and I'm the only lobster aboard this craft. This lady and I belong in Denboro. My launch has run out of gasolene and we have been drifting about the bay since five o'clock. Now, for heaven's sake, don't talk any more, but take us to the lock-up and be quick about it."
The unknown paid no attention to my entreaty. Instead he leaned still further over the Comfort's rail. The dory careened until I expected to see her capsize.
"I swan to man!" he muttered. "I swan to man! 'Tain't possible I'm mistook!"
"It scarcely seems possible, I admit. But I'm afraid it is true."
I heard the club fall with a clatter.
"My—godfreys! Do you mean to say—? From Denboro? Out of gasolene! Why—why, you've got sail up!"
"Nothing but a tarpaulin on an oar."
"And you've been cruisin' all night? Through the fog—the squall—and all?"
"Yes," wearily, "yes—yes—yes."
"But—but ain't you drownded?"
"Not quite. If you don't let go of that rail we shall be soon."
"Driftin' all night! Ain't you wet through?"
"Yes. Might I suggest that we postpone the rest of the catechism until we reach—the lock-up?"
This suggestion apparently was accepted. Our captor suddenly became very much alive.
"Give me a line," he ordered. "Anchor rope'll do. Where is it? up for'ard?"
He pawed the dory along, hand over hand, until he reached the Comfort's bow. I heard the thump of the anchor as he dragged it into the dory. Then came the creak and splash of oars. His voice sounded from somewhere ahead.
"Head for the light," he shouted. "I'm goin' to tow you in."
"In ashore. That's Mack'rel Island light. My name's Atwood. I'm keeper of it."
I turned to my passenger.
"It looks," I said, "as if our voyage was almost over."
And it was. Mr. Atwood had a tough job on his hands, towing the launch. But the make-shift sail helped some and I did my best to steer in his wake. Miss Colton and I had no opportunity to talk. The gentleman in the dory kept up a running fire of remarks, shouted between grunts, and embroidered with cheerful profanity. We caught fragments of the monologue.
"I swan to man—ugh—I thought ye was thieves, for sartin. Some everlastin', dam—ugh—have been sneakin' out nights and haulin' my lobster pots. Ugh—if I'd caught 'em I was cal'latin' to—ugh—break their—ugh—ugh—This dory pulls like a coal barge—I—Wet through, ain't ye? And froze, I cal'late—Ugh—and hungry, too—Ugh—ugh—My old woman's tendin' light. She—ugh—Here we be! Easy now!"
A low shore loomed black across our bows. Above it the lighthouse rose, a white chalk mark against the sky with a red glare at its upper end. Mr. Atwood sprang overboard with a splash. The launch was drawn in at the end of its anchor rope until its keel grated on the sand.
"Now then!" said our rescuer. "Here we be! Made harbor at last, though I did think I'd crack my back timbers afore we done it. I'll tote the lady ashore. You can wade, can't ye?"
I could and I was very glad of the opportunity. I turned to take Miss Colton in my arms, but she avoided me.
"Here I am, Mr. Atwood," she said. "Oh, thank you."
She was swung into the air and moved shoreward to the accompaniment of mighty splashings.
"Don't be scart, ma'am," said Mr. Atwood. "I shan't let ye drop. Lord sakes! I've toted more women in my time than you can shake a stick at. There's more da—that is, there's more summer folks try to land on this island at low tide than there is moskeeters and there's more of them than there's fiddles in—Hi! come on, you, Mr. What's-your-name! Straight as you go."
I came on wading through eelgrass and water until I reached a sandy beach. A moment later we stood before a white door in a very white little house. Mr. Atwood opened the door, revealing a cosy little sitting room and a gray-haired, plump, pleasant-faced woman sitting in a rocking chair beside a table with a lamp upon it.
"Hello, Betsy!" bellowed our rescuer, stamping his wet rubber boots on the braided mat. "Got company come to supper—or breakfast, or whatever you want to call it. This is Mr. Paine from Denboro. This is his wife, Mrs. Paine. They've been cruisin' all the way from Cape Cod to Kamchatky in a motor boat with no power to it. Don't that beat the Old Scratch, hey?"
The plump woman rose, without a trace of surprise, as if having company drop in at three o'clock in the morning was nothing out of the ordinary, and came over to us, beaming with smiles.
"I'm real glad to see you, Mrs. Paine," she exclaimed. "And your husband, too. You must be froze to death! Set right down while I fix up a room for you and hunt up some dry things for you to put on. I won't be but a minute."
Before I could offer explanations, or do more than stammer thanks, and rather incoherent ones at that, she had bustled out of the room. I caught one glimpse of Mabel Colton's face; it was crimson from neck to brow. "Mrs. Paine!" "Your husband!" I was grateful to the doughty Mr. Atwood, but just then I should have enjoyed choking him.
The light keeper, quite unaware that his unfortunate misapprehension of the relationship between his guests might be embarrassing, was doing his best to make us feel at home.
"Take off your boots, Mr. Paine," he urged. "The old lady'll fetch you a pair of my slippers and some socks in a minute. She'll make your wife comf'table, too. She's a great hand at makin' folks comf'table. I tell her she'd make a cake of ice feel to home on a hot stove. She beats—"
The "old lady" herself interrupted him, entering with a bottle in one hand and a lamp in the other.
"Joshua!" she said, warningly.
"Well, what is it, Betsy?"
"Be careful how you talk."
"Talk!" with a wink at me. "I wan't goin' to say nothin'."
"Yes, you was. Mrs. Paine, you mustn't mind him. He used to go mate on a fishin' schooner and, from all I can learn, they use pretty strong language aboard these boats."
"Pick it up same as a poll parrot," cut in her husband. "Comes natural when you're handlin' wet trawl line in February. Can't seem to get no comfort out of anything milder."
"He's a real good-hearted man, Joshua is, and a profession' church member, but he does swear more'n he ought to. But, as I tell the minister, he don't mean nothin' by it."
"Not a damn thing!" said Mr. Atwood, reassuringly. The bottle, it appeared, contained Jamaica ginger, a liberal dose of which Mrs. Atwood insisted upon our taking as a precaution against catching cold.
"There's nothin' better," she said.
"You bet there ain't!" this from the lightkeeper. "A body can't get within forty fathoms of a cold with a swallow of that amidships. It's hotter than—"
"The Fourth of July," concluded her husband, triumphantly.
"And now, Mrs. Paine," went on the lady of the house, "your room's all ready. I've laid out some dry things for you on the bed and some of Joshua's, too. You and your husband—"
I thought it high time to explain.
"The lady is not my wife," I said, quickly.
"She ain't! Why, I thought Joshua said—"
"He—er—made a mistake. She is Miss Colton, a summer resident and neighbor of mine in Denboro."
"Sho! you don't say! That's just like you, Joshua!"
"Just like me! Well, how'd I know? I beg your pardon, Miss, I'm sure. Shan't beg your hus—I mean Mr. Paine's pardon; he ought to thank me for the compliment. Haw! haw!"
Miss Colton herself made the next remark.
"If my room is ready, Mrs. Atwood," she said,, without even a glance in my direction, "I think I will go to it. I AM rather wet."
"Wet! Land sakes, yes! I guess you be! Come right in, Joshua, take them clothes of yours into our room and let Mr. Paine put 'em on."
Her husband obeyed orders. After I was alone in the room to which he conducted me and enjoying the luxury of dry socks, I heard him justifying his mistake in stentorian tones.
"I couldn't help it, Betsy," I heard him say. "I took it for granted they was married. When I hove alongside that motor boat they was a-settin' close up together in the stern sheets and so, of course, I thought—"
"You hadn't any business to. You made that poor young lady blush somethin' dreadful. Most likely they're just keepin' company—or engaged, or somethin'. You ought to be more careful."
I wondered if the young lady herself heard all this. I didn't see how she could help it.
Kinder-hearted people than these two never lived, I do believe. It was after three in the morning, both had been up all night, we were absolute strangers to them, and yet, without a word of complaint, they gave the remainder of the hours before daylight to making us comfortable. When I dressed as much of myself as a suit of Mr. Atwood's—his Sunday best, I presume—would cover, and, with a pair of carpet slippers about the size and shape of toy ferry boats on my feet, emerged from the bedroom, I found the table set in the kitchen, the teapot steaming and Mrs. Atwood cooking "spider bread" on the stove. When Miss Colton, looking surprisingly presentable—considering that she, too, was wearing borrowed apparel four sizes too large for her—made her appearance, we sat down to a simple meal which, I think, was the most appetizing I ever tasted.
The Atwoods were bursting with curiosity concerning our getting adrift in the motor boat. I described the adventure briefly. When I told of Lute's forgetfulness in the matter of gasolene the lightkeeper thumped the table.
"There, by godfreys!" he exclaimed. "I could see it comin'! That feller's for all the world like a cook I had once aboard the Ezry H. Jones. That cook was the biggest numskull that ever drawed the breath of life. Always forgettin' somethin', he was, and always at the most inconvenient time. Once, if you'll believe it, I had a skipper of another vessel come aboard and, wishin' to be sort of hospitable, as you might say, I offered him a glass of rum."
"Oh, it's all right, Betsy. This was years ago. I'm as good a teetotaler now as you be, and I never was what you'd call a soak. But I've SEEN fellers—Why, I knew one once that used to go to bed in the dark. He was so full of alcohol he didn't dast to light a match fear he'd catch a-fire. Fact! He was eighty-odd then, and he lived to be nigh a hundred. Preserved, you understand, same as one of them specimens in a museum. He'd kept forever, I cal'late, if he hadn't fell off the dock. The water fixed him; he wasn't used to it. He was the wust—"
"Never mind him. Stick to the cook."
"Yes, yes. Well, I sent that cook for the rum and when he fetched it, I thought it smelt funny. And when I TASTED it—godfreys! 'Twas bay rum; yes, sir, bay rum! same as they put on your hair. You see, he'd forgot to buy any rum when we was in our last port and, havin' the bay rum along he fetched that. 'Twas SOME kind of rum and that was enough for him. I WAS mad, but that visitin' skipper, he didn't care. Drank it down and smacked his lips. 'I'm a State of Maine man,' he says, 'and that's a prohibition state. This tastes like home,' he says. 'If you don't mind I'll help myself to another.' 'I don't mind,' says I, 'but I'm sorry I ain't got any hair-ile. If I had you might have a barber-shop toddy.' Yes, sir! Ho-ho! that's what I said. But he didn't mind. He was—"
And so on. The yarns were not elegant, but, as he told them, they were funny. Mabel Colton laughed as heartily as the rest of us. She appeared to be in fine spirits. She talked with the Atwoods, answered their questions, and ate the hot "spider bread" and butter as if she had never tasted anything as good. But with me she would not talk. Whenever I addressed a remark to her, she turned it with a laugh and her next speech was pretty certain to be addressed to the lightkeeper or his wife. As for our adventure in the launch, that she treated as a joke.
"Wan't you awful scared when that squall struck so sudden?" inquired Mrs. Atwood.
"Humph!" this from Joshua; "I cal'late Mr. Paine was some scart too. What did you do, Mr. Paine?"
"I rigged that canvas on the oar as soon as possible," I answered.
"Um-hm. That was good judgment."
"Tell me, Mr. Atwood," asked the young lady innocently, "are all seafaring men very dictatorial under such circumstances?"
"I mean do they order people about and make them do all sorts of things, whether they wish to or not?"
"Sartin. Godfreys! I never asked nobody what they wished aboard the Ezry H. Jones."
"And do they tell them to 'sit down and keep still'?"
"Gen'rally they tell 'em to get up and keep movin'. If they don't they start 'em pretty lively—with a rope's end."
"I see. Even when they are—ladies?"
"Ladies? Godfreys! we never had but one woman aboard the Ezry. Had the skipper's wife one v'yage, but nobody ever ordered her around any to speak of. She was six feet tall and weighed two hundred. All hands was scart to death of her."
"Suppose she had been ordered to 'sit down and keep still'; what do you think would have happened?"
"Don't know. If 'twas one of the hands I guess likely she'd have hove him overboard. If 'twas the skipper I shouldn't wonder if she'd have knocked him down—after she got over the surprise of his darin' to do such, a thing. She had HIM trained, I tell ye!"
"Miss Colton thinks me rather a bully, I am afraid," I said. "I did order her about rather roughly."
Mr. Atwood burst into a laugh. "That Ezry Jones woman was the skipper's wife," he declared. "Makes a lot of diff'rence, that does. I was considerable of a bully myself afore Betsy got me on the parson's books. Now I'm the most peaceable critter ever you see. Your turn's comin', Miss Colton. All you got to do is be patient."
"Joshua!" said Mrs. Atwood, in mild reproof. "You mustn't mind his talk, Miss Colton. He's a terrible joker."
Miss Colton changed the subject. She did not so much as look at me again during the meal and, after it was over, she went to her room, explaining that she was very tired and would try to get a little sleep.
I had discovered that the lighthouse, being close to the mainland, was equipped with a telephone. Now I begged permission to use it. I called up Denboro and asked to be connected with the Colton home. I felt very sure that there would be no sleep in the big house that night and I wished to relieve their anxiety and to send word to Mother. Mr. Colton himself answered my call.
I announced my identity and explained where I was and that his daughter was in my care and perfectly safe.
"Thank God!" was the fervent exclamation at the other end of the wire, and the voice which uttered it was shaking with emotion. "Stay where you are a moment, Paine. Let me tell my wife. She is almost crazy. Hold the wire."
I held the wire and waited. The next voice which reached my ears was Mrs. Colton's. She asked a dozen questions, one after the other. Was Mabel safe? Was I sure she was safe? Wasn't the poor child almost dead after all she'd been through? What had happened? What was she doing away over there in that dreadful place? Why had I taken her there?
I answered as well as I could, telling briefly of the collision in the fog and what followed. The explanation appeared to be rather unsatisfactory.
"You take the wire, James," I heard the lady say. "I can't make it all out. Mabel is at some horrid lighthouse and there is no kerosene, or something. The poor child! Alone there, with that man! Tell him she must be brought home at once. It is dreadful for her! Think what she must have suffered! And with HIM! What will people say? Tell him to bring her home! The idea! I don't believe a word—"
"Hello—hello, Paine!" Colton was at the 'phone once more. "Can you get Mabel—Miss Colton, over to Wellmouth, do you think?"
"Yes. I will get a boat as soon as I can. Miss Colton is in her room, asleep I hope. She is very tired and I think she should rest until daylight. I will get her to Wellmouth in time for the morning train."
"Never mind the train. I'll come after her in the auto. I will start now. I will meet you at the landing—at the wharf, if there is one."
"Very well. Will you be good enough to send word to my mother that I am safe and sound? She will be worried."
"Yes, yes, I'll send word. Tell Mabel to be careful and not take cold. . . . Yes, Henrietta, I am attending to everything. Good-by, Paine."
That was all, not a word of thanks. I did not expect thanks and I made allowances for the state of mind at the mansion; but that telephone conversation, particularly Mrs. Colton's share in it, cast a gloom over my spirits. I did not care to hear more of Mr. Atwood's yarns and jokes. I went to my own room, but I did not sleep.
At half-past five I was astir again. The lightkeeper, it appeared, had an auxiliary engine in a catboat which he owned and could let me have a sufficient supply of gasolene to fill the Comfort's tank. When this was done—and it took a long time, for Joshua insisted upon helping and he was provokingly slow—I returned to the sitting room and asked Mrs. Atwood to call Miss Colton.
"Land sakes!" was the cheery answer, "I didn't have to call her. She's been up for fifteen minutes. Said she was goin' to take a cruise around the lighthouse. I cal'late you'll find her out there somewheres. Go and fetch her here. You two must have a bite—a cup of hot coffee and a biled egg, anyhow—afore you leave. Yes, you must. I shan't listen to a no from either of you."
I went out and crossed the sandy yard to the whitewashed lighthouse. There was no sign of Miss Colton in the yard, but the door of the lighthouse was open and I entered. No one there. The stairs, winding upward, invited me to climb and I did so. The little room with the big lantern, the latter now covered with a white cloth, was untenanted also. I looked out of the window. There she was, on the iron gallery surrounding the top of the tower, leaning on the rail and gazing out over the water. She had not heard me. For a moment I stood there, watching her.
She was not wearing Mrs. Atwood's gown now, but her own, wrinkled and stained from its last night's drenching in salt water, but dry now. She was bareheaded and her brown hair was tossing in the sea breeze. The sun, but a little way above the horizon and shining through the morning haze, edged her delicate profile with a line of red gold. I had never seen her look more beautiful, or more aristocratic and unapproachable. The memory of our night in the launch seemed more like an unbelievable dream than ever, and the awakening more cruel. For I was awake now. What I had heard over the 'phone had awakened me thoroughly. There should be no more dreaming.
I stepped out upon the gallery.
"Good morning," I said.
She turned quickly, and I heard her catch her breath with a little gasp.
"I beg pardon," said I; "I'm afraid I startled you."
She was startled, that was evident, and, it seemed to me, a trifle embarrassed. But the embarrassment was but momentary.
"Good morning," she said. "How very silent you can be when you choose, Mr. Paine. How long have you been standing there, pray?"
"Only a moment. I came to call you to breakfast."
"Yes, Mrs. Atwood insists upon our breakfasting before I take you ashore."
"Oh! Why didn't you call me? I would have come down."
"I did not see you until I reached the lantern room. My silence was not premeditated. I made noise enough, or so it seemed to me; but you were so wrapped in your thoughts—"
"Nonsense!" She interrupted me almost sharply. "I was not 'wrapped' in anything, except the beauty of this view. It IS beautiful, isn't it?"
"Very," I answered, but fear I was not looking at the view. It may be that she noticed this, for she said:
"You have come into your own again, I see. So have I."
She indicated her gown with a smile and a gesture. I laughed.
"Yes," I said. "I have returned unto Joshua that which was his."
"You should have kept it. You have no idea what a picturesque lightkeeper you make, Mr. Paine."
Somehow or other this harmless joke hurt.
"Yes," I answered, drily, "that is about my measure, I presume."
Her eyes twinkled. "I thought the measure rather scant," she observed, mischievously. "I wish I might have a snap-shot of you in that—uniform."
"I am afraid the opportunity for that is past."
"But it—" with a little bubble of mirth, "it was so funny."
"No doubt. I am sorry I can't oblige you with a photograph."
She looked at me, biting her lip.
"Is your bump of humor a dent, Mr. Paine?" she inquired. "I am afraid it must be."
"You may be right. I don't appreciate a joke as keenly as—well, as Mr. Carver, for instance."
She turned her back upon me and led the way to the door.
"Shall we go to breakfast?" she asked, in a different tone.
Breakfast was a silent meal, so far as we two were concerned. The Atwoods, however, talked enough to make up the deficiency.
As we rose from the table the young lady turned to the lightkeeper.
"Mr. Atwood," she said, "I presume you are going to be kind enough to take me to Wellmouth?"
"Why, Miss, I—I wan't cal'latin' to. Mr. Paine here, he's got all the gas he needs now and he'll take you over in his launch."
"Oh! But you will go, if I ask you to?"
"You have been so very kind that I dislike to ask another favor; but I hoped you would send a telegram for me. My father and mother will be very much alarmed and I must wire them at once. You will have to send it 'collect,' for," with a rueful smile, "I haven't my purse with me."
"Land sakes! that'll be all right. Glad to help you out."
I put in a word. "It will not be necessary," I said, impatiently. "I have money enough, Miss Colton."
I was ignored.
"Thank you so much, Mr. Atwood. You will come with me and look out for the telegram?"
"Yes. Yes—yes. But I don't see what you need to send no telegram for. Mr. Paine here, he telephoned to your folks last night."
She looked at me and then at Joshua.
"Last night?" she repeated.
"Why yes—or this mornin' after you'd gone to bed. He was dead set on it. I could see he was 'most tired and wore out, but he wouldn't rest till he'd 'phoned your folks and told 'em you was safe and sound. Didn't seem to care nothin' about himself, but he was bound your pa and ma shouldn't worry."
She turned to me.
"Did you?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered. "Your father is to meet us at the Wellmouth wharf."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I intended to. I meant to tell you when I saw you in the lighthouse, but—I forgot it."
She said no more, but when Joshua, hat and boots on, met us at the door she spoke to him.
"You need not go, Mr. Atwood," she said. "It will not be necessary—now."
"Godfreys! I'd just as soon as not. Ruther, if anything."
He hurried down to the beach. I was about to follow when a hand touched my arm. I turned, to find a pair of brown eyes, misty but wonderful, looking into mine.
"Thank you," said Miss Colton.
"Don't mention it."
"But I shall. It was thoughtful and kind. I had forgotten, or—at least—I took it for granted there was no 'phone here. But you did not forget. It was thoughtful, but—it was like you."
I was breathing hard. I could not look at her.
"Don't," I said, roughly. "It was nothing. Anyone with common sense would have thought of it and done it, of course."
"I did not. But you—Oh, it was like you! Always some one else and never yourself. You were worn out. You must have been, after—" with a shudder—"last night. Oh, I have so much to thank you for! I—"
"Come on! Heave ahead!" It was Mr. Atwood, bellowing from the beach. "All aboard for Wellmouth and pints alongshore."
Betsy appeared in the door behind us.
"All ready, be you?" she asked.
I could not have answered, but my companion was once more as calm and cool as the morning itself.
"All ready," she answered. "Good-by, Mrs. Atwood. And thank you over and over again. You have been so kind." With a sudden flash of enthusiasm. "Every one is kind. It is a beautiful world. Good-by."
She ran lightly down the slope and I followed.
The trip to Wellmouth was of but a half hour's duration. Atwood talked all the time. Miss Colton laughed at his stories and seemed to be without a care. She scarcely looked at me during the passage, and if she caught me looking at her and our glances met she turned away. On the wharf was a big automobile, surrounded by a gaping crowd of small boys and 'longshore loafers.
We drew up beside the landing. Our feminine passenger sprang ashore and ran up the steps, to be seized in her father's arms. Mrs. Colton was there also, babbling hysterically. I watched and listened for a moment. Then I started the engine.
"Shove off," I ordered. The lightkeeper was astonished.
"Ain't ye goin' ashore?" he demanded.
"No," I answered, curtly. "I'm going home. Shove off."
The launch was fifty feet from the pier when I heard a shout. Colton was standing on the wharf edge, waving his hand. Beside him stood his daughter, her mother's arms about her.
"Here! Paine!" shouted Colton. "Come back! Come back and go home with us in the car. There is plenty of room."
I did not answer.
"Come back! Come back, Paine!" he shouted again. Mrs. Colton raised her head from her daughter's shoulder.
"James! James!" she cautioned, without taking the trouble to lower her voice, "don't make a scene. Let him go in his dreadful boat, if he prefers to."
"Paine!" cried her husband again.
"I must look out for the launch," I shouted. "I shall be home almost as soon as you are. Good-by."
I left the lightkeeper at his island. He refused to accept a cent from me, except in payment for the gasolene, and declared he had had a "fust-rate night of it."
"Come and see us again, Mr. Paine," he said. "Come any time and fetch your lady along. She's a good one, she is, and nice-lookin', don't talk! You're a lucky critter, did you know it? Haw! haw! Good-by."
The Comfort never made better time than on that homeward trip. I anchored her at her moorings, went ashore in the skiff, and hastened up to the house. It was past ten o'clock and I would be over an hour late at the bank. A fine beginning for my first day in charge of the institution!
The dining-room door was open, but no one was in the dining-room. The kitchen door, however, was shut and from behind it I heard Dorinda's voice.
"You can get right out of this house," she said. "I don't care if you've got a mortgage on the rest of the Cape! You ain't got one on this house, and you nor nobody else shall stay in it and talk that way. There's the door."
"Dorindy!" wailed another voice—Lute's. "You mustn't talk so—to him! Don't you realize—"
"I realize that if I had a husband instead of a jellyfish I shouldn't have to talk. Be still, you!"
A third voice made itself heard.
"All right," it growled. "I ain't anxious to stay here any longer than is necessary. Bein' an honest, decent man, I'm ashamed to be seen here as it is. But you can tell that low-lived sneak, Ros Paine, that—"
I opened the door.
"You may tell him yourself, Captain Dean," said I. "What is it?"
My unexpected entrance caused a sensation. Lute, sitting on the edge of one of the kitchen chairs, an agonized expression on his face, started so violently that he almost lost his balance. Dorinda, standing with her back toward me, turned quickly. Captain Jedediah Dean, his hand on the knob of the door opening to the back yard, showed the least evidence of surprise. He did not start, nor did he speak, but looked at me with a countenance as grim and set and immovable as if it had been cast in a mould.
Lute, characteristically enough, uttered the first word.
"By time!" he gasped. "It's Ros himself! Ros—Ros, you know what he says?" He pointed a shaking finger at the captain. "He says you—"
"Keep still!" Dorinda struck her palms together with a slap, as if her husband had been what she often called him, a parrot. Then, without another glance in his direction, she stepped backward and took her stand beside me.
"I'm real glad to see you home safe and sound, Roscoe," she said, calmly.
"Thank you, Dorinda. Now, Captain Dean, I believe you were sending a message to me just now. I am here and you can deliver it. What is it you have to say?"
Before he could answer Dorinda spoke once more.
"Lute," she said, "you come along with me into the dinin'-room."
"But—but, Dorindy, I—"
"You come with me. This ain't any of my business any more, and it never was any of yours. Come! move!"
Lute moved, but so slowly that his progress to the door took almost a full minute. His wife paid no heed to the pleading looks he gave her and stood majestically waiting until he passed her and crossed the sill. Then she turned to me.
"If you want me, just speak," she said. "I shall be in the dining-room. There ain't no need for Comfort to know about this. She doesn't know that you've been away and hasn't been worried at all. I'll look out for her. Lute'll be with me, so you needn't fret about him, either."
She closed the door.
"Now, Captain Dean," I repeated, "what is it you have to say?"
The captain's grim mouth twisted in a savage sneer.
"You know what I'm goin' to say as well as I do," he answered.
"Possibly, but you had better say it."
"It won't take me long. You've sold that Shore Lane land to Jim Colton, ain't you?"
My calm affirmative seemed to astonish him. I think he expected a denial. His hand left the doorknob and he stepped toward me.
"You—HAVE!" he cried. "You don't even take the trouble to—You have the face to stand there and tell me—"
He almost choked.
"Captain Dean," I interrupted, quickly, "wait a moment. Listen to me. I have sold Colton the land. I did not intend selling it at all, least of all to him, but circumstances compelled me to change my mind. I did it because I was obliged to. It is done. I am sorry I had to do it, but, under the same conditions, I should do it again. I am not ashamed."
He leaned forward, steadying himself with a hand upon the table, and stared at me.
"You ain't ashamed?" he repeated. "You ain't ashamed! Why, you—Didn't you tell me you'd never sell that land? Didn't you promise me?"
"I did not promise anything. At first I promised not to sell without letting you know of my intention. Afterward I took back that promise."
"But why did you sell? You said it wan't a question of price at all. You made your brags that it wan't! To me, over and over, you made 'em. And then you sneak off and—"
"Stop! I did think it was not a question of price. Then I found out that it was."
He clenched his fist.
"Damn you!" he shouted, furiously. "You liar! You sneak! After I—"
"That is enough, Captain. This has gone far enough. I have sold the land—for what seemed to me a good reason—and your calling me names will not change the situation. I don't care to hear them. You had better go."
"I say you had better go."
"I go? You'll put me out?"
"No, certainly not. But there is nothing to be gained by a quarrel, and so, for both our sakes, I think you had better go away."
For a moment I thought he would strike me. Then his fist fell heavily upon the table. His lips were quivering like those of an infirm person. He looked old, and I had never before considered him an old man.
"What made you do it?" he cried, desperately. "What made you do it? Is it all settled? Can't you back out?"
"But—but why didn't you sell to me—to the town? If you had to sell why didn't you do that? Why did you go to him?"
"Because he would pay me what I needed; because his price was higher than any you or the town could offer."
"How did you know that? My heavens above! I'd have paid—I'd have paid most anything—out of my own pocket, I would. I tell you this meant everything to me. I'm gettin' along in years. I ain't been any too well liked here in Denboro, and I knew it. You think that didn't make no difference to me, maybe I pretended it didn't, but it did; by the Almighty, it did! I intended for folks to be thankful to me for—I—Oh, WHY did you do it, Ros?"
I shook my head. I was sorry for him now—sorry and astonished. He had given me a glimpse of the real Jedediah Dean, not the pompous, loud-voiced town politician and boss, but the man desirous of fighting his way into the esteem and liking of his neighbors.
"I'm sorry, Captain," I said. "If I had known—if I had had time to think, perhaps I might have acted differently. But I had no time. I found that I must have the money which that land would bring and that I had to have it immediately. So I went where I knew I could get it."
"Money? You needed money? Why didn't you come to me? I'd have lent it to you."
"Yes, me. What do you cal'late I've been backin' you all this summer for? What did I get you that job in my bank for?"
"YOU? George Taylor engaged me for that place."
"Maybe so. But do you suppose he did it on his own hook? HE couldn't hire you unless the directors said so and the directors don't say anything, the majority of 'em, unless I say it first. I put the notion in George's head. He didn't know it, but I did. And I put it in the directors' heads, too. Ros Paine, I always liked you, though I did use to think you was a gentleman loafer. There was a somethin' about you even then, a kind of hands-off, mind your own business independence about you that I liked, though I knew mighty well you never liked me. And after you and me got together on this Lane thing I liked you more and more. You could tell me to go to the devil as well as you could anybody else, and I'll shake hands with a feller that'll do that. I always wanted a boy of my own. Nellie's a good girl, no better afloat or ashore, but she is a girl. George is a good feller, too, but somehow, or 'nother, I'd come to think of you as the kind of son I'd have had, if the Almighty had give me one. Oh, what did you do this for?"
I could not answer. He had overwhelmed me. I never felt meaner or more wicked. I had been ready to face him, ready for the interview with him which I knew was inevitable and which I had foreseen, but not this kind of an interview.
He took his hand from the table and stood erect.
"Money!" he said. "You wanted money. You must have wanted it bad. What did you want it for?"
"I can't tell you."
"You had better. It's your only chance, I tell you that!"
"I can't help it, Captain Dean. I can't tell you. I wish I could."
He regarded me in silence for a moment. Then: "All right," he said, solemnly. "I'm through with you, Ros Paine. In one way I'm through with you. In another I ain't. I cal'late you was figgerin' to go straight up to the bank, as bold as brass, and set down at George Taylor's desk and draw your wages like an honest man. Don't you ever dare set foot in that bank again. You're fired! bounced! kicked out! Do you understand?"
"Very well; I understand."
"You will understand, whether you do now or not. Colton's got the Shore Lane and you've got his dirty money in your pocket. He's paid you, but the town ain't. The town you sold out ain't paid you—but I'm goin' to see that it does. Ros Paine, I'm goin' to drive you out of Denboro."
He turned on his heel, strode to the door, went out, and slammed it behind him.
I went back to the dining-room. Lute was nowhere in sight, but Dorinda was standing by the mantel, dusting, as usual, where there was no dust. I did not speak but walked toward the door leading to the stairs. Dorinda stepped in front of me.
"Roscoe," she said, sharply, "can he do it?"
"Do it?" I repeated. "What do you mean?"
"Can he give you your walkin' papers at that bank? Oh, I heard him! I tried not to, but he hollered so I couldn't help it. That kitchen door ain't much thicker'n a sheet of paper, anyhow. Can he do it?"
"I guess so. He seems to be boss of that institution."
"But can't 'Lisha Warren or some of the other directors help you? Jed Dean don't boss 'Lisha Warren—not much."
"I shan't ask for help. Please don't trouble me, Dorinda."
I tried to pass her, but she would not permit it.
"I shan't trouble you, Ros," she said. "I guess you've got troubles enough without me. But you let me ask you this: Are you goin' to let him drive you out of town?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "It may not take much driving," I announced, listlessly, "if it were not for Mother I should be only too glad to go."
Again I tried to pass, but this time she seized my arm.
"Roscoe Paine," she cried, "don't you talk like that. I don't want to hear another word like that. Don't you let Jed Dean or nobody else drive you out of Denboro. You ain't done nothin' to be ashamed of, have you?"
"I sold that land to Mr. Colton. I don't know how Captain Jed found it out, but it is true enough; I did exactly what he said I did."
"Found out! He found out from somebody over to Ostable where the deed was recorded, that is how he found out. He said so. But I don't care for that. And I don't care if you sold the Lane ten times over. You didn't do it for any mean or selfish reason, that I know. There ain't a selfish bone in your body, Roscoe. I've lived along with you all these years and I know. Nobody that was mean or selfish would give up their chances in life and stay here in this one-hoss town because his ma was sick and had took a notion that she couldn't bear to part with him. Don't you mind Jed Dean—pig-headed old thing!—or anybody else in Denboro. Hold up your head and show 'em you don't care for the whole caboodle of 'em. Let 'em talk and act like fools, if they want to. It comes natural to most of 'em, I cal'late, and they'll be sorry some day. Don't you let 'em drive you out. They won't come inside THIS house with their talk, not while I'm here, I tell you that!"
Her eyes, behind the brass-rimmed spectacles, flashed fire. This was the longest speech I had ever heard her make.
"There, Dorinda," I said, smiling, "don't worry on my account. I'm not worth it. And, whatever I do, I shall see that you and Lute are provided for."
Instead of calming her this statement seemed to have the exactly opposite effect.
"Stop it!" she snapped. "The idea! Do you suppose it's for myself I'm talkin' this way to you? I guess 'tain't! My soul! I'll look out for myself, and Lute, too, long's I'm able to walk; and when I can't walk 'twill be because I've stopped breathin'. It's for you I'm talkin', for you and Comfort. Think of her."
I sighed. "I have been thinking of her, Dorinda," I declared. "She doesn't know a word about this."
"Then tell her."
"I can't tell her my reason for selling, any more than I can tell you—or Dean."
"Tell her what you can, then. Tell her as much of the truth as you can. She'll say you done right, of course. Whatever you do is right to her."
I made no reply. She regarded me keenly.
"Roscoe," she went on, "do you WANT to go somewheres else?"
"I don't know, Dorinda. I might as well be here as anywhere, perhaps. I am rather blue and discouraged just now, that's all."
"I can't blame you much. But bein' discouraged don't do any good. Besides, it's always darkest just afore dawn, they say; anyhow, I've had that preached to me ever since I was a girl and I've tried to believe it through a good many cloudy spells. Roscoe, don't you let old Jed or anybody DRIVE you out of Denboro, but, if you WANT to go—if you think you'd ought to go, to earn money or anything, don't you worry about leavin' Comfort. I'll look out for her as well as if she was my own. Remember that."
I laid my hand on hers. "Thank you," I said, earnestly. "Dorinda, you are a good woman."
To my surprise the eyes behind the spectacles became misty. Tears in Dorinda's eyes! When she spoke it was in, for her, a curiously hesitating tone.
"Roscoe," she faltered, "I wonder if you'd be cross if I asked about what wan't any of my business. I'm old enough to be your grandma, pretty nigh, so I'm goin' to risk it. You used to be independent enough. You never used to care for the town or anybody in it. Lately you've changed. Changed in a good many ways. Is somethin' besides this Lane affair frettin' you? Is somebody frettin' you? Are you worried about—that one?"
She had caught me unawares. I felt the blood tingle in my cheeks. I tried to laugh and made a failure of the attempt.
"That one?" I repeated. "I—Why, I don't understand, Dorinda."
"Don't you? Well, if you don't then I'm just talkin' silly, that's all. If you do, I . . . . Humph! I might have known it!"
She turned like a shot and jerked the door open. There was a rattle, a series of thumps, and a crash. Lute was sprawling upon the floor at our feet. I gazed at him in open-mouthed astonishment. Dorinda sniffed scornfully.
"I might have known it," she repeated. "Sittin' on the stairs there, listenin', wan't you?"
Lute raised himself to his knees.
"I think," he panted, "I—I swan! I shouldn't wonder if I'd broke my leg!"
"Um-hm! Well, if you'd broke your neck 'twouldn't have been no more'n you deserve. Shame on you! Sneakin' thing!"
"Now, Dorindy, I—I wan't listenin'. I was just—"
"Don't talk to me. Don't you open your mouth. And if you open it to anybody else about what you heard I'll—I declare I'll shut you up in the dark closet and keep you there, as if you was three year old. Sometimes I think your head ain't any older than that. Go right out of this house."
"But where'll I go?"
"I don't care where you go. Only don't let me set eyes on you till dinner time. March!"
Lute backed away as she advanced, waving both his hands and pleading and expostulating.
"Dorindy, I tell you . . . WHAT makes you so unlikely? . . . I was just . . . All right then," desperately, "I'll go! And if you never set eyes on me again 'twon't be my fault. You'll be sorry then. If you never see me no more you'll be sorry."
"I'll set eyes on you at dinner time. I ain't afraid of that. Git!"
She followed him to the kitchen and then returned.
"Ah hum!" she sighed, "it's pretty hard to remember that about darkest just afore dawn when you have a burden like that on your shoulders to lug through life. It's night most of the time then. Poor critter! he means well enough, too. And once he was a likely enough young feller, though shiftless, even then. But he had a long spell of fever three year after we was married and he's never been good for much since. I try to remember that, and to be patient with him, but it's a pretty hard job sometimes."
She sighed again. I had often wondered how a woman of her sense could have married Luther Rogers. Now she was telling me.
"I never really cared for him," she went on, looking toward the door through which the discomfited eavesdropper had made his exit. "There was somebody else I did care for, but he and I quarreled, and I took Luther out of spite and because my folks wanted me to. I've paid for it since. Roscoe," earnestly, "Roscoe, if you care for anybody and she cares for you, don't let anything keep you apart. If she's worth a million or fifty cents that don't make any difference. It shouldn't be a matter of her folks or your folks or money or pride or anything else. It's a matter for just you and her. And if you love each other, that's enough. I tell you so, and I know."
I was more astonished than ever. I could scarcely believe that this was the dry, practical Dorinda Rogers who had kept house for Mother and me all these years. And with my astonishment were other feelings, feelings which warned me that I had better make my escape before I was trapped into betraying that which, all the way home from Mackerel Island, I had been swearing no one should ever know. I would not even admit it to myself, much less to anyone else.
I did not look at Dorinda, and my answer to her long speech was as indifferent and careless as I could make it.
"Thank you, Dorinda," I said. "I'll remember your advice, if I ever need it, which isn't likely. Now I must go to my room and change my clothes. These are too badly wrinkled to be becoming."
When I came down, after an absence of half an hour, she was sitting by the window, sewing.
"Comfort's waitin' to see you, Roscoe," she said. "I've told her all about it."
"YOU'VE told her—what?" I demanded, in amazement.
"About your sellin' the Lane and losin' your job, and so on. Don't look at me like that. 'Twas the only common-sense thing to do. She'd heard old Leather-Lungs whoopin' out there in the kitchen and she'd heard you and me talkin' here in the dinin'-room. I hoped she was asleep, but she wan't. After you went upstairs she called for me and wanted to know the whole story. I told her what I knew of it. Now you can tell her the rest. She takes it just as I knew she would. You done it and so it's all right."
"Roscoe, is that you?"
It was Mother calling me. I went into the darkened room and sat down beside the bed.
She and I had much to say to each other. This time I kept back nothing, except my reason for selling the land. I told her frankly that that reason was a secret, and that it must remain a secret, even from her.
"I hate to say that to you, Mother," I told her. "You don't know how I hate it. I would tell you if I could."
She pressed my hand. "I know you would, Roscoe," she said. "I am quite content not to know. That your reason for selling was an honorable one, that is all I ask."
"It was that, Mother."
"I am sure of it. But," hesitatingly, "can you tell me this: You did not do it because you needed money—for me? Our income is the same as ever? We have not met with losses?"
"No, Mother. Our income is the same that it has been for years."
"Then it was not because of me; because you felt that I should have those 'luxuries' you talk about so often? Oh, I don't need them, Roscoe I really don't. I am—I scarcely dare say it for fear it may not be true—but I THINK I am better than I have been. I feel stronger."
"I know you are better, Mother. Doctor Quimby is very much encouraged."
"Is he? I am so glad! For your sake, Boy. Perhaps the time will come when I may not be your Old Man Of the Sea as I am now. But you did not sell the land because of me?"
"You did not sell it for yourself, that I know. I wonder . . . But, there! I mustn't wonder, and I won't. Captain Dean was very angry and unreasonable, Dorinda says. I suppose his pride is hurt. I'm afraid he will make it unpleasant for you in the village."
"He will do his best, I'm sure of that."
"You poor boy! As if you did not have enough to bear without that! He has asked you to resign from the bank?"
I smiled. "He has pitched me out, neck and crop," I answered. "I expected that, of course."
"But what will you do? Can't Mr. Taylor help you? Perhaps he will use his influence with the captain."
"I don't need his influence, Mother. I took the place merely because of a whim. Now that I have lost it I am no worse off than I was before."
"But you enjoyed the work?"
I was only beginning to realize how much I had enjoyed it. I sighed, involuntarily.
Mother heard the sigh and the pressure of her hand on mine tightened.
"Poor boy!" she said again. Then, after a moment, "I wish I might talk with Miss Colton about this."
I started violently. What had put that idea in her head?
"Miss Colton!" I exclaimed. "Mother, whatever you do, don't speak to her—about me."
"Why not? She has not called on us for some time, but she is interested in you, I know. And perhaps her father could—"
She was silent for an instant. Then she said, quietly. "Boy, what is it? Is there something else you haven't told me? Something about—her?"
"No, no," I stammered.
"Isn't there? Are you sure?"
I do not know what reply I should have made. Her question, coming so close upon the heels of Dorinda's hints, upset me completely. Was it written upon my face, for everyone to see? Did I look the incredible idiot that I knew myself to be? For I did know it. In spite of my determination not to admit it even in my innermost thoughts, I knew. I was in love with Mabel Colton—madly, insanely, hopelessly in love with her, and should be until my dying day. I had played with fire too long.
Before I could answer there came a knock at the door. It opened and Dorinda's head appeared. She seemed, for her, excited.
"There's somebody to see you, Ros," she said. "You'd better come out soon's you can. He's in a hurry."
"Someone to see me," I repeated. "Who is it?"
Dorinda glanced at Mother and then at me. She did not so much as whisper, but her lips formed a name. I rose from my chair.
Mother looked at me and then at Dorinda.
"Who is it, Roscoe?" she asked.
"Just a caller on a business matter," I answered, hurriedly. "I'll be out at once, Dorinda."
"But who is it, Roscoe?"
"It's Mr. Colton, Mother. He has probably come to—"
"Dorinda," Mother interrupted me, "ask Mr. Colton to come in here."
"Ask him to come in here, Dorinda. I should like to meet him."
Dorinda hesitated, but when Mother spoke in that tone none of us hesitated long. She disappeared. A moment later the door opened wide and Colton entered. The sudden transition from sunlight to semidarkness bewildered him for a moment, doubtless, for he stood there without speaking. Dorinda, who had ushered him in, went out and closed the door. I stepped forward.
"Good morning, Mr. Colton," I said, as calmly as I could. "You have never met my mother, I think. Mother, this is Mr. Colton, our neighbor."
Colton turned toward the bed and murmured a few words. For once, I think, he was startled out of his customary cool self-possession. And when Mother spoke it seemed to me that she, too, was disturbed.
"Roscoe," she said, quickly, "will you draw that window-shade a little more? The light is rather strong. Thank you. Mr. Colton, I am very glad to meet you. I have heard of you often, of course, and I have met your daughter. She has been very kind to me, in many ways. Won't you sit down?"
I drew forward a chair. Our visitor accepted it.
"Thank you, Mrs. Paine," he said. "I will sit. To be honest, I'm very glad of the opportunity. I have been under the doctor's care for the past few weeks and last night's performance is not the best sort of treatment for a tender digestion. The doctor told me what I needed was rest and sleep and freedom from care. I told him I probably shouldn't get the last item till I was dead. As for the rest—and sleep—Humph!" with a short laugh, "I wonder what he would have said if he had seen me last night."
Mother's face was turned away from him on the pillow. "I am sorry to hear that you have been ill, Mr. Colton," she said.
"Ill! I'm not ill. I have never been sick in my life and I don't propose to begin now. If the crowd in New York would let me alone I should be all right enough. There is a deal on there that is likely to come to a head pretty soon and my people at the office are nervous. They keep 'phoning and telegraphing and upsetting things generally. I'll have to run over there myself in a day or two and straighten it out. But there! I didn't come here to worry you with my troubles. I feel as if I knew you, Mrs. Paine."
"Knew me? Knew ME, Mr. Colton?"
"Yes. I have never had the pleasure of meeting you before, but my daughter has spoken of you often. She is a great admirer of yours. I won't tell you all the nice things she has said about you, for she has probably said them to you or to your son, already."
"You should be very proud of your daughter, Mr. Colton. She is a charming girl."
"Thanks. Just among us three I'll admit, in confidence, that I think you're right. And I'll admit, too, that you have a pretty good sort of a son, Mrs. Paine. He is inclined to be," with a glance in my direction, "a little too stubborn and high-principled for this practical world, but," with a chuckle, "he can be made to listen to reason, if you give him time enough. That is so, isn't it, Paine?"
I did not answer. Mother spoke for me.
"I am not sure that I understand you, Mr. Colton," she said, quietly. "I presume you are referring to the sale of the land. I do not know why Roscoe changed his mind in that matter, but I do know that his reason was a good one, and an honest one."
"He hasn't told it to you, then?"
"No. But I know that he thought it right or he never would have sold."
I broke in here. I did not care to hear my own praises.
"Did you call to discuss the Shore Lane, Mr. Colton?" I inquired. "I thought that affair settled."
"It is. No, I didn't come to discuss that. Mrs. Paine, I don't know why your son sold me that land, but I'm inclined to think, like you, that he wouldn't have done it unless he thought it was right. I know mighty well he wasn't afraid of me. Oh, you needn't laugh, young man. There ARE people in that fix, plenty of 'em. No, I didn't come to talk 'Lane.' That bird is dead. I came, first of all, to thank you for what you did for my daughter last night."
Mother turned her head and looked at him.
"For your daughter? Last night? Roscoe, what does he mean?"
"Nothing, Mother, nothing," I said, hastily. "I was unlucky enough to run the Comfort into Miss Colton's canoe in the bay yesterday afternoon in the fog. Fortunately I got her into the launch and—and—"
"And saved her from drowning, then and a dozen times afterward. He hasn't told you, Mrs. Paine? No, I can see that he hasn't. All right, I will. Paine, if your ingrowing modesty won't stand the pressure you had better leave the room. This is about what happened, Mrs. Paine, as Mabel tells it."
I tried to prevent him, but it was no use. He ignored me altogether and went on to tell of the collision in the fog, the voyage across the bay, and my telephone from the lighthouse. The story, as he told it, magnified what he called my coolness and common-sense to a ridiculous extent. I lost patience as I listened.
"Mr. Colton," I interrupted, "this is silly. Mother, the whole affair was more my fault than my good judgment. If I had anchored when it first happened we should have been home in an hour, instead of drifting all night."
"Why didn't you anchor, then?" asked Colton.
I stopped short. I could not tell him why I did not anchor. He laughed aloud.
"That's all right," he said. "I guess Mabel's story is near enough to the truth for all practical purposes. Mrs. Paine," with a sudden change to seriousness, "you can understand why I have come here this morning. If it had not been for your son's pluck, and cool head, and good judgment I—Mrs. Colton and I might have been—God knows in what state we might have been to-day! God knows! I can't think of it."
His voice trembled. Mother put out a hand and took mine.
"Roscoe," she said, "Roscoe."
"So I came to thank him," went on our visitor. "This isn't the first time he has done something of the sort. It seems almost as if he—But never mind that. I'm not going to be foolish. Your son and I, Mrs. Paine, have been fighting each other most of the summer. That's all right. It was a square fight and, until this newest freak of his—and he has got me guessing as to what it means—I admit I thought he was quite as likely to lick me as I was to lick him. I've watched him pretty closely and I am a pretty fair judge of a man, I flatter myself. Did he tell you that, a while ago, I offered him a place in my office?"
"In your office? You offered him that? No, he did not tell me. Roscoe!" reproachfully.
"I did not tell you, Mother, because it was not worth while. Of course I could not accept the offer."
She hesitated and, before she spoke, Colton broke in.
"Why not? That was what you were going to say, Mrs. Paine, I take it. That is what I said—why not? And I say it again. Paine, that offer is still open."
I shook my head. "I told you then that I could not accept," I said. "It is impossible."
"Why is it impossible? So far as I am concerned I believe you would be a mighty good investment."
"Impossible," I said again.
"Nothing is impossible. We won't waste words. I am going to be plain and I think Mrs. Paine will excuse me. You think you should not leave your mother, perhaps. I understand that reason. It would be a good one, except that—well, that it isn't good any longer. Your mother is much better than she was. Quimby—her doctor and mine—says so. I shall see that she is well looked after. If she needs a nurse she shall have one, the best we can get. Oh, be still and let me finish! You can talk afterward. You're not going so far away. New York isn't the end of the earth; it is only the center, or it thinks it is. You'll be in close touch with Denboro all the time and you can come here whenever you want to. Now will you take my offer?"
"Young man, if I didn't know there were brains inside that head of yours I should think it was, as the boys say, solid ivory. Confound you! Here, Mrs. Paine," turning to Mother, "you take him in hand. Tell him he must come with me."
"Mother—" I protested. He cut my protest short.
"Tell him," he ordered.
Mother looked at me. "I think, perhaps, you should accept, Roscoe," she said, slowly.
"Yes. I—I think you should. I am sure everyone else would think so. I should not wish you to do so if Mr. Colton was merely trying to be kind, to help you from motives of gratitude, or charity—"
"Don't use that word, please," snapped "Big Jim." "When I lose my mind I may take to charity, but not before. Charity! Good Lord!"
"But it is not charity. I am better, Roscoe; I realize it every day; and with Dorinda I shall get on perfectly well. I have been thinking of something like this for a long time. You owe it to yourself, Roscoe. The chance is one that many men would be very, very glad to have come their way. I shall not urge you, Boy. You must decide for yourself, and I know you will; but, Roscoe, I shall be quite contented—yes, glad and proud, if you say yes to Mr. Colton."
The gentleman named nodded emphatic approval. "That's the talk!" he exclaimed. "Mrs. Paine, I congratulate you on your common-sense."
"I think, like you, that you will have made a good investment, Mr. Colton," was Mother's answer.
I rose to my feet. This must be ended now, for all time.
"I thank you, Mr. Colton," I said, though not as steadily as I could have wished. "I am greatly obliged to you and I realize that you offer me an exceptional opportunity, or what would be one for another man. But I cannot accept."
"Look here, Paine! I'll speak plainer still. I understand that that Shore Lane trade of ours has become common property, or, at any rate, it will be common property soon. If I see the situation clearly, Denboro is likely to be a rather unpleasant place for you. That fellow Dean has a lot of influence here—heaven knows why!—and he hates me worse than Old Nick hates holy water. Oh, I know you're not afraid of him! But what is the use of taking the rough road when the smooth one is right before your feet? Say yes, and let's end it."
"No," said I, stubbornly. "No, Mr. Colton."
"You mean it? Very well, I leave you in your Mother's hands. She will probably bring you to your senses before long. Mrs. Paine, you can handle him, I have no doubt. I am glad to have met you, and, with your permission, I shall call on you again. So will Mabel. As for you, young man, I thank you for last night's work. You will, perhaps, accept thanks if you refuse everything else. Good morning."
He rose, bowed, and walked to the door. As he opened it he staggered, perceptibly. I thought, for an instant, that he was going to fall, and I sprang to his assistance.
"It's all right," he said, gruffly. "This digestion of mine sets my head spinning sometimes. That doctor says I shall upset completely unless I rest. I told him he was a fool and I intend to prove it. Let me be. I can walk, I should hope. When I can't I'll call the ambulance—or the hearse. I'll find the way out, myself. Good-by."
The door closed behind him.
"Roscoe," said Mother, quickly, "come here."
I turned toward her. She was looking at me with a strange expression.
"What is it, Mother?" I asked, anxiously.
"Roscoe," she whispered, "I know him. I have met him before."
"Know him! You have met Mr. Colton—before? Where?"
"At our home in the old days. He came there once with—with your father. He was our guest at dinner."
I could scarcely believe it. Then, as the thought of what this might mean flashed to my mind, I asked anxiously:
"Did he know you, do you think?"
"No, I am sure he did not. We met but once and I have," with a little sigh, "changed since then. But I recognized him. The name of Colton was familiar to me when you first mentioned it, some time ago, but I did not remember where I had heard it. Of course, I did not connect this Mr. Colton with—that one."
I frowned. This complicated matters still more, and further complications were superfluous.
"And, knowing this, knowing that he might recognize you at any time, you urged me to accept his offer," I said, reproachfully. "Mother!"
"Mother, how can you? Would you have me go to New York and enter a banking house where, any hour of any day, I might be recognized by some of the men I once knew? Where I might expect at any moment to be called by my real name? How can you?"
She gazed at me earnestly. "Why not tell him, Roscoe?" she asked.
I stared at her, aghast. "Tell him!" I repeated. "Tell him who I am? Tell him our story, the story that—Mother, are you crazy?"
"No. I believe I am sane, at least. I have been thinking a great deal of late. As I have been growing stronger I have been thinking more and more and I am not sure that you and I have been right in hiding here as we have done. It was all my fault, I know, but I was weak and—and I dreaded all the gossip and scandal. But, Boy, it was a mistake. After all, we have done no wrong, you and I—we, personally, have nothing to be ashamed of. Why not end all this? Go to Mr. Colton, tell him who you are, tell him our story; then, if he still wants you—"
I interrupted. "No, Mother," I said, "no, no! It is impossible. Even if he knew, and it made no difference, I could not do it. I may go away! I may feel that I must go, if you are well enough for me to leave you, but I can not go with him. I ought not to see him again. I must not see HER. . . . . Oh, don't you understand? Mother, I—I—"
She understood. I had seized her hand and now she stroked it gently with her own.
"So it is true," she said, quietly. "You love her, Roscoe."
"Yes! yes! yes!" I answered, desperately. "Oh, don't speak of it, Mother! I am insane, I think."
"Does she care for you, Boy? Have you spoken to her?"
"MOTHER! Is it likely?"
"But I think she does care, Roscoe. I think she does. She must."
This was so characteristic that, although I was in anything but a laughing mood, I could not help smiling.
"How could she help it? I presume you mean," I observed, sarcastically. "There, Mother, don't worry. I did not intend that you or anyone else should know what an idiot I am, but don't worry—I shan't do anything ridiculous or desperate. I may go somewhere, to get away from Denboro, and to earn a living for you and me, but that is all. We won't speak of her again."
"But if she does care, Boy?"
"If she does—Of course, she doesn't—but, if she does, can't you see that only makes it worse? Think who she is and who and what I am! Her family—Humph! you have not met her mother; I have."
"But if she loves you—"
"Do you think I should permit her to ruin her life—for me?"
"Poor boy! I am SO sorry!"
"It is all right, Mother. There! we won't be foolish any longer. I am going for a walk and I want you to rest. I am glad, we have had this talk; it has done me good to speak what I have been thinking. Good-by. I will be back soon."
She would have detained me, but I broke away and went out. My walk was a long one. I tramped the beach for eight long miles and, though one might think that my adventures of the night before had provided exercise enough, this additional effort seemed to do no harm. I forgot dinner entirely and supper was on the table when I returned to the house.
I found Dorinda in a condition divided between anxiety and impatience.
"Have you seen anything of that man of mine?" she demanded. "I ain't seen hide nor hair of him since I pitched him out of this room this mornin'!"
I was surprised and a little disturbed. I remembered Lute's threat about "never seein' me no more."
"You don't suppose he has run away, or anything like that, do you?" I asked.
"He wouldn't run far; runnin's too much like work. But why he wan't home for dinner I don't understand. I never knew him to miss a meal's vittles afore. I hope nothin' ain't happened to him, that's all. Well, we'll have our supper, anyhow. After that we'll see."
But we did not have to see. We were at the table when we heard the sound of hurrying footsteps on the walk. The gate closed with a bang. Dorinda rose from her chair.
"I swan! I believe that's him now!" she exclaimed.
"If it is, he is certainly running this time," I observed. "What—"
The door was thrown open and the missing member of the household appeared. He was red-faced and panting, but there was a curious air of dignified importance in his bearing. Dorinda's lips shut tightly.
"Well, Lute," said I, "where have you been?"
Lute struggled for breath.
"Don't ask me where I've been!" he gasped. "Don't waste no time askin' ME questions. Get your hat on, Ros! Get your hat on this minute! Where did I put that? Where in time did I put it?"
He was fumbling in his pockets. Dorinda and I looked at each other. She shook her head.
"He's gone stark foolish at last!" she said, with decision. "Well, I've been expectin' it! Lute Rogers, stop pawin' yourself over and act sensible, if you can. What is the matter with you?"
"Matter with me! Nothin's the matter with ME; but there's somethin' the matter with other folks, I tell you that! Doctor Quimby's been there twice already, and the telephone's been goin', and—and—My time! you ought to seen her face! 'Twas just as white as—as—WHERE did I put that letter?"
His "pawing" became more frantic than ever. His wife stepped forward and seized him by the arm.
"Stop it, I tell you!" she commanded. "Stop it! Who's sick? Whose telephone's ringin'? What letter are you talkin' about? Answer me! Stop that Saint Vitus dancin' and answer me this minute!"
She gave him a shake and his cap fell to the floor. From it fell an envelope. Lute pulled himself free and pounced upon it.
"There 'tis!" he exclaimed. "By time! I was scart I'd lost it! Read it, Ros! read it!"
He handed me the envelope. It bore my name. I tore it open—took out the sheet of notepaper which it inclosed, and read as follows:
"Dear Mr. Paine:
"Father is very ill, and I am in great trouble. I think you, perhaps, can help us both. Will you come over at once? PLEASE do.
"And—and—" panted Lute, "she told me to tell you to please hurry. And you'd ought to seen her face! She—"
I heard no more. I did not wait to get my hat, as the excited bearer of the note had urged me to do. Bareheaded, I hurried out of the dining-room and along the path toward the Colton mansion.
It was early in the evening, but the big house was lighted as if for a reception; lights in the rooms above, lights in the library and hall and drawing-room. Doctor Quimby's horse and buggy stood by one of the hitching posts and the Colton motor car was drawn up by the main entrance. From the open windows of the servants' quarters came the sounds of excited voices. I hastened to the front door. Before I could push the button of the electric bell the door was opened. Johnson, the butler, peered out at me. Most of his dignity was gone.
"Is it you, Mr. Paine?" he asked, anxiously. "Come in, sir, please. Miss Mabel has been asking for you not a minute ago, sir."
I entered the hall. "What is it, Johnson?" I asked, quickly. "How is Mr. Colton?"
The butler looked behind him before replying. He shook his head dubiously.
"He's awful ill, sir," he whispered. "The doctor's been with him for an hour; 'e's unconscious and Mrs. Colton is takin' on something terrible. It's awful, sir, ain't it!"
His nervousness was sufficient indication of the general demoralization of the household. And from one of the rooms above came the sobs of a hysterical woman.
"Brace up, man," I whispered in reply. "This is no time for you to go to pieces. Where is Miss Colton?"
"She's with her father, sir. Step into the library and I'll call her."
He was not obliged to call her, for, at that moment, I heard her voice speaking from the head of the stairs.
"Who is it, Johnson?" she asked, in a low tone.
"It's Mr. Paine, Miss Mabel."
I heard a little exclamation, of relief it seemed to me. Then she appeared, descending the staircase. Her face was, as Lute had said, pale, but her manner was calm, much calmer than the butler's.
She came to me and extended her hand. "Thank you for coming," she said. "I was sure you would."
"How is your father, Miss Colton?" I asked.
"He is no worse. Come into the library, please. Johnson, if Mother or the doctor need me, I shall be in the library. Come, Mr. Paine."
We entered the library together. The room in which I had had my two memorable encounters with "Big Jim" Colton was without its dominant figure now. His big armchair was drawn up beside the table and the papers and writing materials were in the place where I had seen them. A half-burned cigar lay in the ash tray. But the strong fingers which had placed it there were weak enough now and the masterful general of finance was in his room upstairs fighting the hardest battle of his life, fighting for that life itself. A door at the end of the library, a door which I had not noticed before, was partially open and from within sounded at intervals a series of sharp clicks, the click of a telegraph instrument. I remembered that Colton had told me, in one of his conversations, that he had both a private telephone and telegraph in his house.
Miss Colton closed the door behind us, and turned to me.
"Thank you for coming," she said, again. "I need help and I could think of no one but you. You have hurried dreadfully, haven't you!"
She was looking at my forehead. I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror above the mantel and reached for my handkerchief.
"I must have run every step of the way," I answered. "I didn't realize it. But never mind that. Tell me about your father."
"He was taken ill soon after he returned from your house. He was in the library here and I heard him call. When I reached him he was lying upon the couch, scarcely able to speak. He lost consciousness before we could get him to his room. The doctor says it is what he has feared, an attack of acute indigestion, brought on by anxiety and lack of rest. It was my fault, I am afraid. Last night's worry—Poor Father!"
For just a moment I feared she was going to break down. She covered her eyes with her hand. But she removed it almost immediately.
"The doctor is confident there is no great danger," she went on. "Danger, of course, but not the greatest. He is still unconscious and will be for some time, but, if he is kept perfectly quiet and not permitted to worry in the least, he will soon be himself again."
"Thank God for that!" I exclaimed, fervently. "And your mother—Mrs. Colton—how, is she?"
Her tone changed slightly. I inferred that Mrs. Colton's condition was more trying than serious.
"Mother is—well, in her nervous state any shock is disturbing. She is bearing the anxiety as well as we should expect."
I judged that not much was expected.
"It was not on account of Father's illness that I sent for you, Mr. Paine," she went on. "If he had not been ill I should not have needed you, of course. But there is something else. It could not have happened at a more unfortunate time and I am afraid you may not be able to give me the help I need. Oh, I hope you can! I don't know what to do. I know it must be dreadfully important. Father has been troubled about it for days. He has been saying that he must go to New York. But the doctor had warned us against his going and so we persuaded him to wait. And now . . . sit down, please. I want to ask your advice."
I took the chair she indicated. She drew another beside me and seated herself.
"Mr. Paine—" she began. Then, noticing my expression, she asked, "What is it?"
"Nothing," I answered, "nothing except—Isn't that the telegraph instrument I hear? Isn't someone calling you?"
"Yes, yes, it is Mr. Davis, Father's confidential man, his broker, in New York. He is trying to get us, I am sure. He telephoned an hour ago. I got a part of his message and then the connection was broken off. Central says there is something the matter with the wire, a big storm in Connecticut somewhere. It may take a whole day to repair it. And it is SO important! It may mean—I don't know WHAT it may mean! Oh, Mr. Paine, DO you know anything about stocks?"
I looked at her blankly.
"Stocks?" I repeated.
"Yes, yes," a trifle impatiently. "Stocks—the stock market—railroad shares—how they are bought and sold—do you know anything about them?"
I was more puzzled than ever, but I answered as best I could.
"A very little," I replied. "I used to know a good deal about them once, and, of late, since I have been in the Denboro bank, my knowledge has been brushed up a bit. But I am afraid it is pretty fragmentary."
"Do you know anything about Louisville and Transcontinental?"
I started. Louisville and Transcontinental was the one stock about which I did know something. Of late I had read everything the papers printed concerning it. It was the stock in which George Taylor had risked so much and which had come so near to ruining him. No wonder I was startled. Why did she mention that particular stock?
"What?" I stammered.
"Louisville and Transcontinental," she repeated, eagerly. "DO you know anything about it? Why do you look at me like that?"
I must be careful. It was not possible that she could have learned George's secret. No one knew that except George himself, and his brokers, and I. Yet—yet why did she ask that question? I must be on my guard.
"I did not realize that I was looking at you in any extraordinary way, Miss Colton," I answered.
"But you were. Why? Do you know anything about it? If you do—oh, if you do you may be able to help me, to advise me! And, for Father's sake, I want advice so much."
For her father's sake! That did not sound as if her question concerned George or me. A trifle reassured, I tried to remember something of what I had read.
"I know, of course," I answered, slowly, "what every one knows, that the California and Eastern has been, or is reported to have been, trying to get control of the L. and T. Its possession would give the California people the balance of power and mean the end of the present rate war with the Consolidated Pacific. The common stock has fluctuated between 30 and 50 for months and there have been all sorts of rumors. So much the newspapers have made common property. That is all I know."
"You did not know then that Father and his associates control the California and Eastern?"
I leaned back in my chair.
"No," I said, "I did not know that. Then your father—"
"Father tells me a great deal concerning his business affairs. I have been very much interested in this. It seems almost like a great war and as if Father were a general. He and his associates have gradually bought up the C. and E. until they practically own it. And they have been working to get the Louisville road. Last winter, you remember, there was a great excitement and the stock went up and then down again. That was when it looked as if the other side—the Consolidated Pacific—had beaten Father, but they had not. You remember that?"
I remembered it. That is to say, George had told me of the rise and fall of the stock. It was then that he had bought.
"Yes," I said, "I remember something of it."
"If Father had stayed in New York he would have won before this. Oh," with a burst of pride, "they can NEVER beat him when he is leading the fight himself! He has, through his brokers, been selling—what do they call it? Oh, yes, selling the Louisville stock 'short' ever since. I am not sure just what that means, but perhaps you know."
"I think I do," I answered, thoughtfully. "He has been selling, quietly, so as to force the stock down, preparatory to buying in. I remember the papers have said that the C. and E. were reported as having lost interest in the Louisville. That was only a blind, I presume."
"Yes. Father never gives up, you know that. But he was very anxious that the Consolidated Pacific people should think he had. And now—now, when he is so ill—comes this! Mr. Davis telephoned that—Yes, what is it?"
There had been a knock at the door. It opened and the butler appeared.
"A telegram for Mr. Colton, Miss Mabel," he said.
"Give it to me. Tell the man to wait, Johnson. It is from Mr. Davis," she exclaimed, turning to me. "I am sure it is. Yes. See!"
She handed me the yellow telegram. I read the following aloud:
"James W. Colton,
"Galileo potato soap currency tomato deeds command army alcohol thief weather family—"
"What on earth—!" I exclaimed.
"That is in the code, Father's private code. Don't you see? The code book is here somewhere. I must find it."
She was rummaging in the drawer of the desk. With a sigh of relief she produced a little blue leather-covered book.
"Here it is," she said. "Now read me the telegram and I will write the translation. Hurry!"
I read again:
"That means 'Consolidated Pacific'. Go on."
It took us five minutes to translate the telegram. When we had finished the result was:
"Consolidated Pacific crowd wise situation. Strong buying close market to-day. Expect worse to-morrow. We are bad shape. Can deliver only part. Sure big advance opening and more follow. What shall I do? Why do not you answer private telegraph line? Telephone out order. Wire instructions immediately. Better still come yourself. Davis."
"Is that all?" asked Miss Colton. "What answer shall we make?"
"Wait. Wait, please, until I dig some sort of sense out of all this. 'Wise situation'—"
"Wise TO situation, I presume that means. The Consolidated Pacific is wise to the situation. 'Wise' is slang, isn't it? It used to be at college."
"It is yet, even in Denboro. Humph! let me think. 'Sure big advance opening.' I suppose that means the market will open with Louisville and Transcontinental at a higher figure and that the price is sure to advance during the day."
"Yes. Yes, it must mean that. But why should Mr. Davis be so excited about it? He said something about 'ruin' over the 'phone. What does 'We are bad shape' mean? And 'Can deliver only part'?"
"I don't know . . . unless . . . Humph! If we had some particulars. Why don't you answer on the private telegraph, as he says?"
"Because I can't. Don't you see? I can't. There is no telegraph operator in the house. When we first came Father had a secretary, who could use the telegraph; but he sent him back to New York. Said he was sick of the sight of him. They did not get on well together."
"But your father must have used the telegraph since."
"Yes. Father used it himself. He was a telegraph operator when he was a young man. Oh, you don't know what a wonderful man my father is! His story is like something in a book. He—But never mind that. Hark! there is the instrument going again. It must be dreadfully important. Mr. Davis is so worried."
"He seems to be, certainly."
"But what shall we do?"
"I wish I knew, but I don't. You know nothing of the particulars?"
"No. Nothing more than I have told you. Oh, CAN'T you help me? I feel somehow as if Father had left me in charge of his affairs and as if I must not fail. Now, when he is helpless! when he is . . . Oh, can't YOU do something, Mr. Paine? I thought you might. You are a banker."
"A poor imitation only, I am afraid. Let me think. Did you tell this man Davis of your father's illness?"
"No. I thought perhaps Father would not wish it. And I had no opportunity . . . Oh, dear! there is someone at the door again! Who is it?"
Johnson's voice replied. "It is me, Miss Mabel," he said. "The telegraph person says he can't wait any longer. He 'asn't 'ad his supper. And there is a twenty-five-cent charge for bringing the message, Miss."
"Tell him he must wait a minute longer," I answered, for her. "Miss Colton, it seems to me that, whether we can do anything or not, we should know the particulars. Tell that man—Phineas Cahoon, the depot master, I suppose it is—that there is an answer and he must wait for it. Now let's consult that code."
She took the code book and I picked up a sheet of paper and a pencil from the table.
"We must ask him to send all the particulars," I declared. "Look up 'send' in the code, Miss Colton."
She was turning the pages of the little book when the butler knocked once more.
"He says he can't send any message until morning, Miss Mabel. The telegraph office closes at eight o'clock."
The code book fell to the table. Miss Colton stared helplessly at me.
"What SHALL we do?" she breathed.
I rose to my feet. "Wait, Johnson," I called. "Make that man wait a moment longer. Miss Colton, I have an idea. Would your father be willing to—but, that is silly! Of course he would! I'll see Cahoon myself."
I found Phineas, long-legged and gaunt, sitting on the front step of the colonial portico. He had been invited into the hall, but had refused the invitation. "I had on my workin' duds," he explained later. "A feller that's been handlin' freight all the afternoon ain't fit to set on gold-plated furniture." He looked up in surprise as I came out.
"Well, for thunder sakes!" he exclaimed, in astonishment. "It's Ros Paine! What in the nation are you doin' in here, Ros? Ain't married into the family, have ye? Haw, haw!"
I could have kicked him for that pleasantry—if he had not been just then too important a personage to kick. As it was, his chance remark knocked my errand out of my head, momentarily.
"How's the old man, Ros?" he whispered. "They tell me it's brought on by high livin', champagne wine and such. Is it?"
"Phin," said I, ignoring the question, "would you stay up all night for twenty dollars?"
He stared at me.
"What kind of conundrum's that?" he demanded. "'Would I set up all night for twenty dollars?' That may be a joke, but—"
"Would you? I mean it. Mr. Colton is sick and his daughter needs some one to send and receive messages over their private telegraph wire. She will pay you twenty dollars—or I will, if she doesn't—if you will stay here and do that for her. Will you?"
For a minute he sat there staring at me.
"You mean it, Ros?" he asked, slowly. "You do, hey! I thought p'raps—but no, it's long past April Fool day. WILL I do it? Show me the telegraph place quick, afore I wake up and come out of the ether. Twenty dollars! Consarn it, I send messages all the week for twelve, and hustle freight and sell tickets into the bargain. I ain't had no supper, but never mind. Make it twenty-five and I'll stay all day to-morrer."
I led him into the library and explained his presence to Miss Colton. She was delighted.
"It is SO good of you, Mr. Cahoon," she exclaimed. "And you shan't starve, either. I will have some supper sent in to you at once. You can eat it while you are at work, can't you?"
She hurried out to order the supper. Phineas, in accordance with my request, seated himself in the little room adjoining the library, before the telegraph instrument.
"Thunder!" he observed, looking about him. "I never expected to send messages for King Solomon in all his glory, but I cal'late I can stand it if Sol can. S'pose there'd be any objection to my takin' off my coat? Comes more nat'ral to work in my shirt sleeves."
I bade him take it off and he did so.
"This feller's in some hurry," he said, nodding toward the clicking instrument. "Shall I tell him we're on deck and ready for business?"
"Yes, tell him."
His long fingers busied themselves with the sender. A sharp series of clicks answered the call. Phineas glanced apprehensively out into the library.
"Say, he ain't no parson, is he?" he chuckled. "Wants to know what in hell has been the trouble all this time. What'll I tell him?"
"Tell him to send particulars concerning L. and T. at once. All the particulars."
The message was sent. The receiver rattled a hasty reply.
"He says you know all the particulars already. You must know 'em. Wants to know if this is Mr. Colton."
"Tell him Mr. Colton is here, in the house. That will be true enough. And say we wish all particulars, figures and all. We want to know just where we stand."
The demand for particulars was forwarded. There was more clicking.
"Give me a piece of paper and a pencil, quick," urged Phineas. "This is a long feller."
While he was writing the "long feller," as the telegraph ticked it off, Miss Colton and the butler appeared, the latter bearing a loaded tray. He drew a little table up beside the operator and placed the tray upon it. Then he went away. The telegraph clicked and clicked and Cahoon wrote. Miss Colton and I watched him anxiously.
"Say," observed Phineas, between intervals of clicks, "this feller's in some loony asylum, ain't he. This is pretty nigh as crazy as that message I fetched down. . . . Here 'tis. Maybe you folks know what it means, I don't. It's forty fathoms long, ain't it."
It was long enough, surely. It was not all in the code jargon—Davis trusted the privacy of the wire sufficiently to send a portion of it in plain English—but he did not trust even that altogether. Miss Colton and I worked it out as we had the first telegram. As the translation progressed I could feel my hair tingling at the roots.
Was it to help in such a complication as this that I had been summoned? I, of all people! These waters were too deep for me.
Boiled down, the "particulars" for which Davis had been asked, and which he had sent, amounted to this: Colton, it seemed, had sold L. and T. "short" for a considerable period of time in order, as I had surmised, to force down the price and buy in at a reasonable figure. He had sold, in this way, about three-eighths of the common stock. Of this amount he had in his possession—in his broker's possession, that is—but two of the eighths. The "other crowd"—the Consolidated Pacific, presumably—had, as Davis now discovered, three-eighths actual certificates, in its pocket, had been acquiring them, on the quiet, while pretending to have lost interest. The public, unsuspecting powers in this, as in most of Wall Street little games, had still three-eighths. The "other crowd," knowing "Big Jim's" position, had but to force immediate delivery of the missing one-eighth—the amount of Colton's over-selling—and he might be obliged to pay Heaven knew what for the shares. He MUST acquire them; he must buy them. And the price which he would be forced to pay might mean—perhaps not bankruptcy for him, the millionaire—but certainly the loss of a tremendous sum and all chance of acquiring control of the road. "This has been sprung on us all at once," wired Davis. "They have got us cold. What shall I do? You must be here yourself before the market opens."
And the man who "must be there himself" was critically ill and unconscious!
The long telegram, several hundred words of it, was before us. I read it through again, and Miss Colton sat and looked at me.
"Do you understand it—now?" she whispered, anxiously.
"Yes, I think I do. . . . What is it, Phin?"
"I was just wonderin'," drawled Cahoon's voice from the adjoining room, "if I couldn't eat a little mite of this supper. I've got to do it or have my nose and eyes tied up. Havin' all them good things settin' right where I can see and smell 'em is givin' me the fidgets."
"Yes, yes, eat away," I said, laughing. And even Miss Colton smiled. But my laugh and her smile were but transient.
"Is it—Does it mean that things are VERY wrong?" she asked, indicating the telegram.
"They are very serious; there is no doubt of that."
The instrument clicked.
"Say, Ros," said Phin, his mouth full, "this feller's gettin' as fidgety as I was afore I got afoul of this grub. He wants to know what his instructions are. What'll he do?"
"What shall you tell him?" asked Miss Colton.
"I don't know," I answered. "I do not know. I am afraid I am of no use whatever. This is no countryman's job. No country banker, even a real one, should attempt to handle this. This is high finance with a vengeance. I don't know. I think he . . . Suppose we tell him to consult the people at your father's office."
She shook her head. "No," she said. "The people at the office know nothing of it. This was Father's own personal affair. No one knows of it but Mr. Davis."
"How about them instructions?" this from Cahoon.
"Tell him—yes, tell him Mr. Colton cannot leave here at present and that he must use his own judgment, go ahead on his own responsibility. That is the only thing I see to do, Miss Colton. Don't worry; he must be a man of experience and judgment or your father never would use him. He will pull it through, I am sure."
I was by no means as confident as I pretended to be, however, and the next message from Davis proved my forebodings to be well founded. His answer was prompt and emphatic:
Matter too important. Decline to take responsibility. Must have definite instructions or shall not act. Is this Mr. Colton himself?
"He would not act without Father's orders in a matter like this. I was afraid of it. And he is growing suspicious. Oh, CAN'T you help me, Mr. Paine? CAN'T you? I relied on you. I felt sure YOU would know what to do. I am—I am SO alone; and with Father so ill—I—I—"
She turned away and leaned her head upon her hand on the table. I felt again the desperate impulse I had felt when we were alone on board the launch, the impulse to take her in my arms and try to comfort her, to tell her that I would do anything—anything for her. And yet what could I do?
"Can't you help me?" she pleaded. "You have never failed me before."
There came a knock at the door and Johnson's voice called her name.
"Miss Mabel," he whispered, "Miss Mabel, will you come, please? The doctor wants you right away."
She rose quickly, drawing her hand across her eyes as she did so.
"I am coming, Johnson," she said. Then, turning to me, "I will be back as soon as I can. Do try—try to think. You MUST, for Father's sake, for all our sakes."
She left the room. I rose and, with my hands in my pockets, began to pace the floor. This was the tightest place I had ever been in. There had been a time, years before, when I prided myself on my knowledge of the stock market and its idiosyncrasies. Then, in the confidence of youth, I might have risen to a situation like this, might have tackled it and had the nerve to pull it through or blame the other fellow if I failed. Now I was neither youthful nor confident. Whatever I did would be, in all human probability, the wrong thing, and to do the wrong thing now meant, perhaps, ruin for the sick man upstairs. And she had trusted me! She had sent for me in her trouble! I had "never failed her before"!
I walked the floor, trying hard to think. It was hard to think calmly, to be sensible, and yet I realized that common-sense and coolness were what I needed now. I tried to remember the outcome of similar situations in financial circles, but that did not help me. I remembered a play I had seen, "The Henrietta" was its name. In that play, a young man with more money than brains had saved the day for his father, a Wall Street magnate, by buying a certain stock in large quantities at a critical time. He arrived at his decision to buy, rather than sell, by tossing a coin. The father had declared that his son had hit upon the real secret of success in stock speculation. Possibly the old gentleman was right, but I could not make my decision in that way. No, whatever I did must have some reason to back it. Was there no situation, outside of Wall Street, which offered a parallel? After all, what was the situation? Some one wished to buy a certain thing, and some one else wished to buy it also. Neither party wanted the other to get it. There had been a general game of bluff and then . . . Humph! Why, in a way, it was like the original bidding for the Shore Lane land.
It was like it, and yet it was not. I owned the land and Colton wanted to buy it; so also did Jed Dean. Each side had made bids and had been refused. Then the bidders had, professedly, stood pat, but, in reality, they had not. Jed had told me, in his latest interview, that he would have paid almost anything for that land, if he had had to. And Colton—Colton had invented the Bay Shore Development Company. That company had fooled Elnathan Mullet and other property holders. It had fooled Captain Jed. It had come very near to fooling me. If Mabel Colton had not given me the hint I might have been tricked into selling. Then Colton would have won, have won on a "bluff." A good bluff did sometimes win. I wondered . . .