I was still pacing the floor when Miss Colton returned to the library. She was trying hard to appear calm, but I could see that she was greatly agitated.
"What is it?" I asked. "Is he—"
"He is not as well just now. I—I must not leave him—or Mother. But I came back for a moment, as I told you I would. Is there anything new?"
"No. Davis has repeated his declaration to do nothing without orders from your father."
She nodded. "Very well," she said, "then it is over. We are beaten—Father is beaten for the first time. It makes little difference, I suppose. If he—if he is taken from us, nothing else matters. But I hoped you . . . never mind. I thank you, Mr. Paine. You would have helped him if you could, I know."
Somehow this surrender, and the tone in which it was made, stirred me more than all else. She had trusted me and I had failed. I would not have it so.
"Miss Colton," I said, earnestly, "suppose—suppose I should go ahead and make this fight, on my own hook. Suppose I should give Davis the 'instructions' he is begging for. Have I permission to do it?"
She looked at me in surprise. "Of course," she said, simply.
"Do you mean it? It may mean complete smash. I am no railroad man, no stock manipulator. I have an idea and if this trouble were mine I should act upon it. But it is not mine. It is your father's—and yours. I may be crazy to risk such a thing—"
She stepped forward. "Do it," she commanded. "I tell you to do it. If it fails I will take the responsibility."
"That you shall not do. But I will take the chance. Phin!"
"Yup; here I be."
"Send this message at once: 'Try your hardest to get hold of any shares you can, at almost any figure in reason, before the market opens. When it opens begin buying everything offered.' Got that?"
"Yup. I've got it."
"Sign it 'Colton' and send it along. I am using your father's name," I added, turning to her. "It seems to me the only way to avoid suspicion and get action. No one must know that 'Big Jim' is critically ill; you understand that."
"Yes, I understand. But," hesitatingly, "to buy may mean paying tremendous prices, may it not? Can we—"
"We must. Here is Davis's reply coming. What is it, Phin?"
Cahoon read off the message as the receiver clicked.
"You are insane. Buying at such prices will be suicide."
"Tell him no. Tell him to let it leak out that Colton is seizing the opportunity to clinch his control of the road. The other crowd will think, if he is willing to buy at any price, that he cannot be so short as they supposed. Send all that, Phin. It is a bluff, Miss Colton, nothing but a bluff, but it may win. God knows I hope it will."
She did not answer. Together we waited for the reply. It came as follows:
All right if you say so, of course, but still think it suicide. I am off on the still hunt for those shares but don't believe one to be had, Consolidated bunch too sharp for that. Stay by the wire. Will report when I can. Good luck and good-by.
"He's gone, I cal'late," observed Phineas. "Need me any more, do you think?"
"Yes. You must stay here all night, just as I told you."
"Right you be. Send word to the old woman, that's all, if you can. Cal'late she's waitin' at the kitchen door with a rollin' pin, by this time."
"I will send the word, Mr. Cahoon," replied Miss Colton. "And—don't you think you could go home now, Mr. Paine? I know how exhausted you must be, after last night."
"No home for me," I answered, with assumed cheerfulness. "Admirals of Finance are expected to stick by the ship. I will lie down here on the couch and Phineas can call me if I am needed. Don't worry, Miss Colton. Go to your father and forget us altogether, if you can. If—if I should be needed for—for any other cause, please speak."
She looked at me in silence for a moment. Then she came toward me and held out her hand. "I shall not forget, whatever else I may do," she said, brokenly. "And I will speak if I need you, my friend."
She turned hastily and went to the door.
"I will send word to your people as well as Mr. Cahoon's," she added. "Try and sleep, if you can. Good night."
The door closed behind her. Sleep! I was not likely to sleep. A man who has lighted the fuse of the powder magazine beneath him does not sleep much.
And yet sleep I did, for a little while, just before morning broke. I had spent the night pacing the floor and talking to Phineas, who was wide awake and full of stories and jokes, to which I paid little attention. Miss Colton did not come to the library again. From the rooms above I heard occasional sobs and exclamations in Mrs. Colton's voice. Once Doctor Quimby peeped in. He looked anxious and weary.
"Hello, Ros!" he hailed, "I heard you were here. This is a high old night, isn't it!"
"How is he?" I asked.
"About the same. No worse; in fact, he's better than he was a while ago. But he's not out of the woods yet, though I'm pretty hopeful, for the old boy has a husky constitution—considering the chances he's taken with it all his life. It's his wife that bothers me. She's worse than one of the plagues of Egypt. I've given her some sleeping powders now; they'll keep her quiet for a spell, I hope."
"And Miss Colton—how is she?"
"She! She's as calm and sensible and helpful as a trained nurse. By the Almighty, she is a wonder, that girl! Well, I must get back on my job. Don't have a millionaire patient every day in the week."
At three o'clock came a message from Davis. He had not been able to secure a single share. Did his instructions to buy still hold? I answered that they did and he replied that he was going to get a nap for an hour or so. "I shall need the rest, if I am any prophet," he concluded.
It was shortly after this that I lay down on the couch. I had determined not to close my eyes, but I was utterly worn out, I suppose, and exhaustion got the better of me. The next thing I knew the gray light of dawn was streaming in at the library windows and Johnson was spreading a tempting-looking breakfast on the table.
I sprang up.
"What time is it?" I demanded.
"About half-past five, sir, or thereabouts," was the answer, in a tone of mingled weariness and resentment. Plainly Mr. Johnson had been up all night and considered himself imposed upon.
I was thankful that my lapse from duty had been of no longer duration. It had been much too long as it was.
"How is Mr. Colton?" I asked.
"Better, sir, I believe. He is resting more quiet at present."
"Where is Cahoon?"
"Here I be," this from Phineas in the next room. "Have a good snooze, did you, Ros?"
"Too good." I walked in and found him still sitting by the telegraph instrument. "Has anything happened?" I asked.
"Nary thing. All quiet as the tomb since that last message, the one you heard. Pretty nigh fell asleep myself, I did. Guess I should have, only Miss Colton she came in and kept me comp'ny for a spell."
"Miss Colton—has she been here? Why didn't you call me, Ros?"
"I was goin' to, but she wouldn't let me. Said you was all wore out, poor feller, and that you wan't to be disturbed unless 'twas necessary. She's an awful nice young woman, ain't she. Nothin' stuck up about her, at all. Set here and talked with me just as sociable and folksy as if she wan't wuth a cent. Asked more questions than a few, she did."
"Did she?" I was not paying much attention to his remarks. My mind was busy with more important things. I was wondering what Davis was doing just then. Phin went on.
"Yup. I happened to remember that you wan't at the bank to-day and I asked her if she knew the reason why. 'How did you know he wasn't there?' says she. 'Alvin Baker told me fust,' I says, 'and Sam Wheeler told him. Everybody knew it and was wonderin' about it. They cal'lated Ros was sick,' I told her, 'but that couldn't be or he wouldn't be round here settin' up all night.' What WAS the reason you wan't there, Ros?"
I thought it strange that he, and everyone else in town, did not know the reason before this. Was it possible that Captain Dean alone knew of my "treason" to Denboro, and that he was keeping the discovery to himself? Why should he keep it to himself? He had threatened to drive me out of town.
"I had other business to-day, Phin," I answered, shortly.
"Yup. So I gathered from what Cap'n Jed said. He was in the depot this noon sendin' a telegram and I asked him about you. 'Is Ros sick?' I says. 'Huh!' says he—you know how he grunts, Ros; for all the world like a hog—'Huh!' says he, 'sick! No, but I cal'late he'll be pretty sick afore long.' What did he mean by that, do you s'pose?"
I knew, but I did not explain. I made no reply.
"Twas a queer sort of talk, seemed to me," continued Phin. "I asked him again why you wan't at the bank, and he said you had other business, just same as you said now. He was ugly as a cow with a sore horn over somethin' and I judged 'twas best to keep still. That telegram he sent was a surprisin' thing, too. 'Twas to—but there! he made me promise I wouldn't tell and so I mustn't. I ain't told a soul—except one—and then it slipped out afore I thought. However, that one won't make no difference. She ain't interested in—in the one the telegram was sent to, 'tain't likely."
"Where is Miss Colton now?" I asked.
"With her ma and pa, I presume likely. Her and me set and whispered together for a long spell. Land sakes! she wouldn't let me speak louder'n a whisper for fear of wakin' you up. A body'd think you was a young-one in arms, the care she took of you."
Again I did not answer, and again the garrulous station master continued without waiting for a reply.
"I says to her, says I, 'It's a pity George Taylor ain't to home,' I says. 'I shouldn't wonder if he could help you with this Louisville stock you're so worried about. George was consider'ble interested in that stock himself a spell ago. I sent much as a dozen telegrams from him about that very stock to some broker folks up to Boston, and they was mighty anxious telegrams, too. I tell you!' I says."
He had caught my attention at last.
"Did you tell her that?" I demanded.
"Sure I did! I never meant to, nuther. Ain't told another soul. You see, George, he asked me not to. But she's got a way with her that would make Old Nick confess his sins, if she set out to larn 'em. I was sort of ashamed after I told her and I explained to her that I hadn't ought to done it. 'But I guess it's all right now, anyway,' I says. 'If there was any trouble along of George and that stock I cal'late it's all over. He acted dreadful worried for a spell, but for the week afore he was married he seemed chipper as ever. Biggest change in him you ever see,' says I. 'So my tellin' you is all right, I guess,' I says. 'I'm sure it's all right,' says she, and her face kind of lighted up, as you might say. When she looked at me that way I'd have given her my house and lot, if she'd wanted 'em, though you needn't tell my old woman that I said so. He! he! 'Of course it's all right,' she says. 'But you had better not tell anyone else. We'll have it for our secret, won't we, Mr. Cahoon?' she says, smilin'. 'Sartin we will,' says I. And—well, by thunder!" as if the thought occurred to him for the first time. "I said that, and now I've been and blatted out the whole business to you! I am the DARNDEST fool!"
I did not contradict him. I was too angry and disturbed even to speak to him for the moment. And, before I could speak, we were interrupted. The young lady herself appeared in the doorway. SHE had not slept, that was plain. Her face was pale and there were dark shadows beneath her eyes. As I looked at her I was more ashamed of my own unpremeditated nap than ever. Yet she was, as the doctor had said, calm and uncomplaining. She even smiled as she greeted us.
"Good morning," she said. "Your breakfast is ready, Mr. Cahoon. I know you feel that you must be getting back to your work at the station."
Phineas pulled out an enormous nickel watch and glanced at it.
"Land sakes! most six, ain't it," he exclaimed. "I guess you're right. I'll have to be trottin' along. But you needn't fuss for no breakfast for me. I'm used to missin' a meal's vittles now and again and I et enough last night to last me one spell."
He was hurrying from the room, but she would not let him go.
"There has been no 'fuss' whatever, Mr. Cahoon," she said. "Breakfast is ready, here in the library. And yours is ready, too, Mr. Paine. I hope your few minutes' sleep has rested you. I am sorry you woke so soon. I told Johnson to be careful and not disturb you."
"I deserve to be shot for sleeping at all," I declared, in self reproach. "I did not mean to. I lay down for a moment and—well, I suppose I was rather tired."
"I know. Last night's experience was enough to tire anyone."
"Nonsense! It was no worse for me than for you," I said.
"Yes, it was. You had the care and the responsibility. I, you see, knew that I was well guarded. Besides, I slept for hours this morning. Come, both of you. Breakfast is ready."
Phineas was already seated at the table, glancing over his shoulder at the butler, whose look of dignified disgust at being obliged to wait upon a countryman in his shirt sleeves would have been funny, if I had been in a mood for fun. I don't know which was the more uncomfortable, Cahoon or the butler.
"Won't you join us, Miss Colton?" I asked.
"Why—why, yes, perhaps I will, if you don't mind. I am not hungry but I will take a cup of coffee, Johnson."
Phineas did almost all the talking while he remained with us, which was not long. He swallowed his breakfast in a tremendous hurry, a proceeding which still further discomposed the stately Johnson, and then rose and put on his coat.
"I hate to leave you short handed and on a lee shore, Miss," he explained, apologetically; "but I know you understand how 'tis with me. My job's all I've got and I'll have to hang onto it. The up train's due in forty minutes and I've got to be on hand at the deepo. However, I've got that Davis feller's address and I'll raise him the first thing to send his messages to me and I'll get 'em right down here by the reg'lar telephone. He can use that—what-do-you-call-it?—that code thing, if he's scart of anybody's findin' out what he says. The boss school-marm of all creation couldn't read that gibberish without the book."
I hated to have him go, but there was no alternative. After he had gone and she and I were left together at the table a sense of restraint seemed to fall upon us both. To see her sitting opposite me at the table, pouring my coffee and breakfasting with me in this intimate, family fashion, was so wonderful and strange that I could think of nothing else. It reminded me, in a way, of our luncheon at Seabury's Pond, but that had been out of doors, an impromptu picnic, with all a picnic's surroundings. This was different, quite different. It was so familiar, so homelike, so conventional, and yet, for her and me, so impossible. I looked at her and she, looking up at the moment, caught my eyes. The color mounted to her cheeks. I felt my own face flushing. Dorinda—practical, unromantic Dorinda—had guessed my feeling for this girl; Mother had divined it. It was plain enough for anyone to read. I glanced apprehensively at the butler, half expecting to see upon his clerical countenance the look of scornful contempt which would prove that he, too, was possessed of the knowledge. But he merely bent forward with a deferential, "Yes, sir. What is it?" and I meekly requested another roll. Then I began, desperately, to talk.
I inquired about Mr. Colton's condition and was told that he was, or appeared to be, a trifle better. Mrs. Colton was, at last, thanks to the doctor's powders, asleep. Johnson left the room for the moment and I switched to the subject which neither of us had mentioned since the night before, the Louisville and Transcontinental muddle. I explained what had been done and pretended a confidence which I did not feel that everything would end well. She listened, but, it seemed to me, she was not as interested as I expected. At length she interrupted me.
"Suppose we do not talk about it now," she said. "As I understand it, you—we, that is—have made up our minds. We have decided to do certain things which seem to us right. Right or wrong, they must be done now. I am trying very hard to believe them right and not to worry any more about them. Oh, I CAN'T worry! I can't! With all the rest, I—I—Please let us change the subject. Mr. Paine, I am afraid you must think me selfish. I have said nothing about your own trouble. Father—" she choked on the name, but recovered her composure almost immediately—"Father told me, after his return from your house this morning, that his purchase of the land had become public and that you were in danger of losing your position at the bank."
I smiled. "That danger is past," I answered. "I have lost it. Captain Dean gave me my walking papers this morning."
"Oh, I am so sorry!"
"I am not. I expected it. The wonder is only that it has not happened before. I realized that it was inevitable when I made up my mind to sell. It is of no consequence, Miss Colton."
"Yes, it is. But Father offered you the position in his employ. He said you refused, but he believed your refusal was not final."
"He was wrong. It is final."
"I had rather not discuss that, Miss Colton."
She looked at me oddly, and with a faint smile. "Very well," she said, after a moment, "we will not discuss it now. But you cannot suppose that either Father or I will permit you to suffer on our account."
"There is no suffering. I sold the land to your father deliberately and with complete knowledge of the consequences. As to the bank—well, I am no worse off than I was before I entered its employ. I am satisfied."
She toyed with her coffee spoon.
"Captain Dean seems to be the only person in Denboro who knows of the sale," she said. "Why has he kept it a secret?"
"I don't know. Has he?"
"You know he has, Mr. Paine. Mr. Cahoon did not know of it, and he would be one of the first to hear. It seems odd that the captain should tell no one."
"Probably he is waiting for the full particulars. He will tell, you may be sure of that. His last remark to me was that he should drive me out of Denboro."
I rather expected a burst of indignation. In fact I was somewhat hurt and disappointed that it did not come. She merely smiled once more.
"He has not done it yet," she said. "If he knew why you sold that land—your real reason for selling it—he would not drive you away, or try to."
I was startled and alarmed.
"What do you mean?" I asked quickly.
"If he knew he would not drive you away, would he?"
"He will never know."
"Perhaps he may. Perhaps the person for whose sake you sold it may tell him."
"Indeed he will not! I shall see to that."
"Oh, then there is such a person! I was sure of it before. Now you have told me."
Before I could recover from the mental disturbance and chagrin which my slip and her quick seizure of it caused me, the butler re-entered the room.
"Mrs. Colton is awake and asking for you, Miss Mabel," he said. "The doctor thinks you had better go to her at once, if you please."
With a word of apology to me, she hurried away. I rose from the table. I had had breakfast enough. The interruption had come at a fortunate time for me. Her next question might have forced me to decline to answer—which would have been equivalent to admitting the truth—or to lie. One thing I determined to do without delay. I would write Taylor at once warning him to be more close-mouthed than ever. Under no conditions would I permit him to speak. If it were necessary I would go to Washington, where he and Nellie were spending their honeymoon, and make him promise to keep silence. His telling the truth might ruin him, and it certainly would not help me. In the one essential thing—the one which was clenching my determination to leave Denboro as soon as I could and seek forgetfulness and occupation elsewhere—no one could help me. I must help myself, or be miserable always. Just now the eternal misery seemed inevitable, no matter what I did.
Johnson cleared the table and left me alone in the library. The hours passed. Nine o'clock came, then nine-thirty. It was almost time for the stock market to open. My thoughts, which had been diverted from my rash plunge into the intricacies of high finance, began to return to it. As ten o'clock drew near, I began to realize what I had bade Davis do, and to think what might happen because of it. I, Roscoe Paine, no longer even a country banker, was at the helm of "Big Jim" Colton's bark in the maelstrom of the stock market. It would have been funny if it had not been so desperate. And desperate it was, sheer reckless desperation and nothing else. I must have been crazier than ever, more wildly insane than I had been for the past month, to even think of such a thing. It was not too late yet, I could telegraph Davis—
The telephone on the desk—not the public, the local, 'phone, but the other, Colton's private wire to New York—rang. I picked up the receiver.
"Hello-o! Hello-o!" a faint voice was calling. "Is this Colton's house at Denboro? . . . Yes, this is Davis. . . . The wire is all right now. . . . Is this Mr. Colton speaking?"
"No," I answered, "Mr. Colton is here in the house. You may give the message to me."
"I want to know if his orders hold. Am I to buy? Ask him. I will wait. Hurry! The market opens in five minutes."
I put down the receiver. Now was my opportunity. I could back out now. Five minutes more and it would be too late. But if I did back out—what?
One of the minutes passed. Then another. I seized the telephone.
"Go ahead!" I shouted. "Carry out your orders."
A faint "All right" answered me.
The die was cast. I was in for it. There was nothing to do but wait.
And I waited alone. I walked up and down the floor of the little room, looking at the clock and wondering what was happening on that crowded floor of the big Broad Street building. The market was open. Davis was buying as I had directed. But at what figure was he buying?
No one came near me, not even the butler. It was ten-twenty before the bell rang again.
"Hello! This is Mr. Davis's office. Is this Mr. Colton? Tell him Mr. Davis says L. and T. is one hundred and fifty now and jumping twenty points at a lick. There is the devil to pay. Scarcely any stock in sight and next door to a panic. Shall we go on buying?"
I was trying to decide upon an answer when some one touched my elbow. Miss Colton was standing beside me. She did not speak, but she looked the question.
I told her what I had just heard.
"One hundred and fifty!" she exclaimed. "That is—Why, that is dreadful! What will you do?"
I shook my head. "That is for you to say," I answered.
"No, it is for you. You are doing this. I trust you. Do what you think is right—you and Mr. Davis. That is what Father would wish if he knew."
"Davis will do nothing on his own responsibility."
"Then you must do it alone. Do it! do it!"
I turned to the 'phone once more. "Buy all you can get," I ordered. "Keep on bidding. But be sure and spread the news that it is Colton buying to secure control of the road, not to cover his shorts. Be sure that leaks out. Everything depends on that."
I hung up the receiver. She and I looked at each other.
"What will happen, do you think?" she asked.
"God knows! . . . Are you going? Don't go!"
"I must," gently. "Father is worse, I fear, and I must not leave him. Doctor Quimby says the next few hours may tell us whether he is—is—whether he is to be with us or not. I must go. Be brave. I trust you. Be brave, for—for I am trying so hard to be."
I seized her hand. She drew it from my grasp and hastened away. Brave! Well, for her sake, I must be. Yet it was because of her that I was such a coward.
As I recall all this now I wonder at myself. The whole thing seems too improbable to be true, yet true it was. I lost my identity that day, I think, and, as the telephone messages kept coming, and the situation became more and more desperate, became some one else, some one a great deal braver and cooler and more clear-sighted than ever I had been or shall be again. I seemed to see my course plainer every moment and to feel surer of myself and that my method—my bluff, if you like—was the only salvation.
At eleven Louisville and Transcontinental was selling—the little that was sold—at four hundred and fifty dollars a share, on a par value of fifty. At eleven-thirty it had climbed another hundred. The whole Street was a Bedlam, so they 'phoned me, and the newspapers were issuing "panic" extras.
"Tell Davis to stop buying now," I ordered. "Let it be known that Colton has secured control and is satisfied."
At noon the figure was 700 bid and 800 asked. There was no trading at all, for the sufficient reason that no shares were to be had. Johnson came in to ask if he should bring my luncheon. I bade him clear out and let me alone. As he was tip-toeing away I called after him.
"How is Mr. Colton?" I asked.
"Very bad indeed, sir. Miss Mabel wished me to say that she could not leave him an instant. It is the crisis, the doctor thinks."
There were two crises then, one on each floor of the big house. At one Davis himself 'phoned.
"Still hanging around 700," he announced. "Begins to look as if the top had been reached. What shall I do now?"
My plan was ready and I gave my orders as if I had been doing such things for years.
"Sell, in small lots, at intervals," I told him. "Then, if the price breaks, begin buying through another broker as cautiously as you can."
The answer was in a different tone; there was a new note, almost of hope, in it.
"By the Lord, I believe you have got it!" he cried. "It may work. I'll report to you, Mr. Colton, right away."
Plainly he had no doubt that "Big Jim" was directing the fight in person. Far was it from me to undeceive him!
Another interval. Then he reported a drop of a hundred points.
"The bottom is beginning to fall out, I honestly believe. They think you've done 'em again. I am spreading the report that you have the control cinched. As soon as the scramble is really on I'll have a half dozen brokers buying for us."
It was half-past two when the next message came. It was exultant, triumphant.
"Down like an avalanche. Am grabbing every share offered. We've got 'em, sure!"
And, as three o'clock struck, came the final crow.
"Hooray for our side! They're dead and buried! You have two hundred shares more than fifty per cent, of the common stock. The Louisville road is in your pocket, Mr. Colton. I congratulate you. Might have known they couldn't lick the old man. You are a wonder. I'll write full particulars and then I am going home and to bed. I'm dead. I didn't believe you could do it! How did you?"
I sat there, staring at the 'phone. Then, all at once, I began to laugh, weakly and hysterically, but to laugh, nevertheless.
"I—I organized a Development Company," I gasped. "Good night."
I rose from the chair and walked out into the library. I was so completely fagged out by the strain I had been under that I staggered as I walked. The library door opened and Johnson came in. He was beaming, actually beaming with joy.
"He's very much better, sir," he cried. "He's conscious and the doctor says he considers 'im out of danger now. Miss Mabel sent word she would be down in a short while. She can't leave the mistress immediate, but she'll be down soon, sir."
I looked at him in a dazed way. "Tell Miss Colton that I am very glad, Johnson," I said. "And tell her, too, that everything here is satisfactory also. Tell her that Mr. Paine says her father has his control."
"'His control!' And what may that be, if you please, sir?"
"She will understand. Say that everything is all right, we have won and that Mr. Colton has his control. Don't forget."
"And—and where will you be, sir?"
"I am going home, I think. I am going home and—to bed."
The next thing I remember with any distinctness is Dorinda's knocking at my bedroom door. I remember reaching that bedroom, of course, and of meeting Lute in the kitchen and telling him that I was not to be disturbed, that I should not come down to supper and that I wanted to be let alone—to be let ALONE—until I saw fit to show myself. But these memories are all foggy and mixed with dreams and nightmares. As I say, the next thing that I remember distinctly after staggering from the Colton library is Dorinda's knocking at the door of my bedroom.
"Ros! Roscoe!" she was calling. "Can you get up now? There is somebody downstairs waitin' to see you."
I turned over in bed and began to collect my senses.
"What time is it, Dorinda?" I asked, drowsily.
"About ten, or a little after."
Ten! Then I had not slept so long, after all. It was nearly four when I went to bed and . . . But what made the room so light? There was no lamp. And the windows . . . I sat up.
"You don't mean to tell me it is ten o'clock IN THE FORENOON!" I cried.
"Um-hm. I hated to disturb you. You've been sleepin' like the everlastin' hills and I knew you must be completely wore out. But I felt pretty sartin you'd want to see the—who 'tis that here's to see you, so I decided to wake you up."
"It is high time you did, I should think! I'll be down in a minute. Who is it that wishes to see me, Dorinda?"
But Dorinda had gone. I dressed hurriedly and descended the stairs to the dining-room. There, seated in a chair by the door, his eyes closed, his chin resting upon his chest, and his aristocratic nose proclaiming the fact that he slumbered, was Johnson, the Colton butler. I was not greatly surprised. I had rather suspected that my caller might be he, or some other messenger from the big house.
He started at the sound of my entrance and awoke.
"I—I beg your pardon, sir," he stammered. "I—I beg your pardon, sir, I'm sure. I've been—I 'aven't closed my eyes for the past two nights, sir, and I am tired out. Mr. Colton wishes to see you at once, sir. He wishes you to come over immediately."
I was surprised now. "MR. Colton wishes it," I repeated. "You mean Miss Colton, don't you, Johnson."
"No, sir. It is Mr. Colton this time, sir. Miss Colton is out in the motor, sir."
"But Mr. Colton is too ill to see me, or anyone else."
"No, sir, he isn't. He's very much better. He's quite himself, sir, really. And he is very anxious to see you. On a matter of business, he says."
I hesitated. I had expected this, though not so soon. He wanted to ask questions concerning my crazy dip into his financial affairs, doubtless. Well, I should have to see him some time or other, and it might as well be now.
I called to Dorinda, who was in the kitchen, and bade her tell Mother, if she inquired for me, that I had gone out, but would be back soon. Then Johnson and I walked briskly along the bluff path. We entered the big house.
"Mr. Colton is in his room, sir," explained the butler. "You are to see him there. This way, sir."
But before we reached the foot of the stairs Doctor Quimby came out of the library. He and I shook hands. The doctor was a happy man.
"Well!" he exclaimed, "what's the matter with the one-horse, country-jay doctor now, hey! If there is any one of the Boston specialists at a hundred a visit who can yank a man out of a serious sickness and put him on his feet quicker than I can, why trot him along, that's all! I want to see him! I've been throwing bouquets at myself for the last ten hours. Ho! ho! Say, Ros, you'll think my head is swelled pretty bad, won't you! Ho! ho!"
I asked how the patient was getting on.
"Fine! Tip-top! The only trouble is that he ought to keep perfectly quiet and not do a thing or think of a thing, except getting his strength back, for the next week. But he hadn't been conscious more than a couple of hours before he was asking questions about business and so on. He and his daughter had a long confab this morning and after that he was neither to bind or tie. He must see you, that's all there was to it. Say, Ros, what did you and Phin Cahoon and the Colton girl do yesterday?"
"Oh, we put through one of Mr. Colton's little trades for him, that's all."
"That's all, hey! Well, whatever 'twas, he and I owe you a vote of thanks. He began to get better the minute he heard it. He's feeling so chipper that, if it wasn't that I swore he shouldn't, he'd have got out of bed by this time. You must go up and see him, I suppose, but don't stay too long. He's a wonder for strength and recuperative powers, but don't tire him too much. If that wife of his was in Europe or somewhere, I'd feel easier. She's the most tiring thing in the house."
Johnson led the way upstairs. At the chamber door he knocked and announced my presence.
"Bring him in! What is he waiting for?" demanded a voice which, considering how recently its owner had been at death's door, was surprisingly strong. I entered the room.
He was in bed, propped up with pillows. Beside him sat Mrs. Colton. Of the two she looked the more disturbed. Her eyes were wet and she was dabbing at them with a lace handkerchief. Her morning gown was a wondrous creation. "Big Jim," with his iron-gray hair awry and his eyes snapping, looked remarkably wide awake and alive.
"How are you, Paine?" he said. "Glad to see you. Sorry to bring you over here, but I had to see you and that doctor says I must stay in this room for a while yet. He may be right. My understanding is pretty shaky, I'll admit. You've met Mrs. Colton, haven't you?"
I bowed and expressed my pleasure at meeting the lady. Her bow was rather curt, but she regarded me with an astonishing amount of agitated interest. Also she showed symptoms of more tears.
"I don't remember whether or not Mr. Paine and I have ever been formally introduced," she observed. "If we haven't it makes no difference, I suppose. The other members of the family seem to know him well enough. And—and mothers nowadays are not considered. I—I must say that—"
She had recourse to the lace handkerchief. I could understand what the doctor meant by calling her the "most tiring thing in the house." Her husband laid a hand on hers.
"There, there, my dear," he said, soothingly, "don't be foolish. Sit down, Paine. Henrietta, perhaps you had better leave Mr. Paine and I together. We have some—er—business matters to discuss and you are tired and nervous. I should go to my room and lie down, if I were you."
Mrs. Colton accepted the suggestion, but her acceptance was not the most gracious.
"I am in the way, as usual," she observed, chokingly. "Very well, I should be resigned to that by this time, no doubt. I will go. But James, for my sake, don't be weak. Remember what—Oh, remember all we had hoped and planned! When I think of it, I—I—A nobody! A person without . . . What SHALL I do?"
The handkerchief was in active operation. She swept past me to the door. There she turned.
"I may forgive you some time, Mr. Paine," she sobbed. "I suppose I shall have to. I can't do anything else. But don't ask me to do it now. That would be TOO much!"
The door closed and I heard her sobs as she marched down the hall. To say that I was amazed and decidedly uncomfortable would be a very mild estimate of my feelings. Why should I expect her to forgive me? What had I done? I—or luck and I together—had saved one of her husband's stock speculations from ending in smash; but that was no injury for which I should beg forgiveness. At least I could not see that it was.
Colton looked after her with a troubled expression.
"Nerves are the devil, aren't they," he observed. "And nerves and a woman together are worse than that. My wife, Paine, is—well, she hasn't been in good health for a long time and Mabel and I have done our best to give her her own way. When you've had your own way for years it rather hurts to be checkmated. I know that from experience. She'll feel better about it by and by."
"Better about what?" I demanded, involuntarily. "I don't understand Mrs. Colton's meaning in the least."
He looked at me keenly for a moment without speaking.
"Don't you?" he asked. "You are sure you don't?"
"Certainly I am sure. What I have done that requires forgiveness I don't see."
Another pause and more scrutiny.
"So you don't understand what she means, hey?" he said again. "All right, all right! We won't discuss that yet a while. If you don't understand—never mind. Time enough for us to talk of that when you do. But, say, Paine," with one of his dry smiles, "who taught you to buck a stock pool?"
This question I could understand. I had expected this.
"No one taught me," I answered. "If I had any knowledge at all in that direction I was born with it, I guess. A form of original sin."
"It's a mighty profitable sort of wickedness—for me. Young man, do you realize what you did? How do you expect me to thank you for that, hey?"
"I don't expect you to thank me at all. It was bull luck that won for you, Mr. Colton. Bull luck and desperation on my part. Miss Colton sent for me to help her. Your confidential man, Davis, refused to make a move without orders from you. You couldn't give any orders. Someone had to do something, or, so it seemed to your daughter and me, your Louisville and Transcontinental deal was a gone goose."
"It was more than that. I might have come pretty near being a gone goose along with it. Not quite gone, perhaps—I should have had a few cents left in the stocking—but I should have lost a lot more than I care to lose. So it was bull luck, hey? I don't believe it. Tell me the whole story, from beginning to end, will you? Mabel has told me some, but I want to hear it all. Go ahead!"
I thought of Quimby's warning. "I'm afraid I should tire you, Mr. Colton. It is a long story, if I give particulars."
"Never mind, you give them. That 'tiring' business is some more of that doctor's foolishness. HE makes me tired, all right. You tell me what I want to know or I'll get out of this bed and shake it out of you."
He looked as if he meant to carry out his threat. I began my tale at the beginning and went on to the astonishing end.
"Don't ask me why I did this or that, Mr. Colton," I concluded. "I don't know. I think I was off my head part of the time. But something HAD to be done. I tried to look at the affair in a common-sense way, and—"
"And, HAVING common-sense, you used it. Paine, you're a brick! Your kind of common-sense is so rare that it's worth paying any price for. Ha! ha! So it was Keene and his 'Development Company' that gave you the idea. That's good! That little failure of mine wasn't altogether a failure, after all. You saw it was a case where a bluff might win, and you had the sand to bluff it through. That comes of living so long where there is more sand than anything else, I imagine, hey! Ha! ha! Well, bull luck or insanity or whatever you call it, it did the trick. Of course I'm more obliged to you than I can tell. You know that."
"That's all right, Mr. Colton. Now I think I must be going. You've talked enough."
"You sit still. I haven't begun to talk yet. Paine, before you did this thing for me I had taken a fancy to you. I believed there was good stuff in you and that I could use you in my business. Now I know I can't afford to do without you. . . . Stop! let me finish. Young man, I told you once that when I made up my mind to do a thing, I always did it. ALWAYS; do you understand? I am going to get you. You are coming with me."
I had foreseen this, of course. But I had hoped to get away from that room before he reached the point. He had reached it, however, and perhaps it was as well he had. We would end this for all time.
"Mr. Colton," I answered, "you have a monopoly of some things, but of others you have not. I am just as determined to have my own way in this matter as you are. I shall NOT accept your offer of employment. That is final."
"Final be damned! Young man—"
"Mr. Colton, if you persist I shall go away."
"Go away! Before I tell you to? Why, you—"
I rose. "The doctor told me that you must not excite yourself," I said. "I am going. Good-by."
He was excited, there was no doubt of that. He sat up in bed.
"You come back!" he ordered. "Come back! If you don't—Well, by the Lord, if you don't I'll get up and come after you!"
I believe he would have tried to do it. I was frightened, on his account. I turned reluctantly. He sank back on the pillow, grinning triumphantly.
"Sit down there," he panted. "Sit down. Now I want you to tell me the real reason why you won't work for me. By gad! you're the first one in many a day I have had to ask twice. Why? Tell me the truth! Why?"
I hesitated. "Well, for one reason," I said, "I don't care for your business."
"Don't CARE for it! After what you just did!"
"I did that because I was driven to it. But I don't care for the stock game. Once I used to think I liked that sort of thing; now I know I don't. If I am anything I am a bank man, a poor sort of one, perhaps, but—"
"Bank man! Why, you idiot! I don't care what you are. I can use you in a dozen places. You don't have to buck the market. I'll do that myself. But there are plenty of places where your brains and that common-sense you talk about will be invaluable to me. I do a banking business, on the side, myself. I own a mining property, a good one, out West. It needs a financial manager, and needs one badly. You come with me, do you hear! I'll place you where you fit, before I get through with you, and I'll make you a rich man in ten years. There! now will you say yes?"
I shook my head. "No," I said.
"NO! You are enough to drive a well man crazy, to say nothing of a half-sick relic like me. I say yes—yes—YES! Sooner or later I'll MAKE you. You've lost your place here. You told me yourself that that old crank Dean is going to make this town too hot to hold you. You'll HAVE to go away. Now won't you?"
I nodded. "I shall go away," I answered. "I have made up my mind to go, now that Mother seems well enough for me to leave her."
"Where will you go?"
"I don't know."
He stared at me in silence for what seemed a long time. I thought he must be exhausted, and once more I rose to go.
"Stop! Stay where you are," he ordered. "I haven't got the answer to you yet, and I know it. There's something back of all this, something I don't know about. I'm going to find out what it is, if it takes me a year. You can tell me now, if you want to. It will save time. What is the real reason why you won't take my offer?"
I don't know why I did it. I had kept the secret all the years and certainly, when I entered that room, I had no intention of revealing it. Yet, now, when he asked this question I turned on him and blurted out what I had sworn no one—least of all he or his—should ever know.
"I'll tell you why," I cried, desperately. "I can't take the place you offer because you know nothing about me. You don't know who I am. If you did you . . . . Mr. Colton, you don't even know my name."
He looked at me and shook his head, impatiently. "Either you ARE crazy, or I am," he muttered. "Don't know your name!"
"No, you don't! You think I am Roscoe Paine. I am not. I am Roscoe Bennett, and my father was Carleton Bennett, the embezzler."
I had said it. And the moment afterward I was sorry. I would have given anything to take back the words, but repentance came too late. I had said it.
I heard him draw a deep breath. I did not look at him. I did not care to see his face and read on it the disgust and contempt I was sure it expressed.
"Humph!" he exclaimed. "Humph! Do you mean to tell me that your father was Carleton Bennett—Bennett of Bennett and Company?"
"Well! well! well! Carleton Bennett! No wonder there was something familiar about your mother, something that I seemed to remember. I met her years ago. Well! well! So you're Carleton Bennett's son?"
"Yes, I am his son."
"Well, what of it?"
I looked at him now. He was smiling, actually smiling. His illness had affected his mind.
"What OF it!" I gasped.
"Ye-es, what of it? What has that got to do with your working for me?"
I could have struck him. If he had not been weak and ill and irresponsible for what he was saying I think I should.
"Mr. Colton," I said, striving to speak calmly, "you don't understand. My father was Carleton Bennett, the embezzler, the thief, the man whose name was and is a disgrace all over the country. Mother and I came here to hide from that disgrace, to begin a new, clean life under a clean name. Do you think—? Oh, you don't understand!"
"I understand all right. This is the first time I HAVE understood. I see now why a clever man like you was willing to spend his days in a place like Denboro. Well, you aren't going to spend any more of them there. You're going to let me make something worth while out of you."
This sounded, in one way, like sanity. But in another—
"Mr. Colton," I cried, "even if you meant it, which you don't—do you suppose I would go back to New York, where so many know me, and enter your employ under an assumed name? Run the risk of—"
"Hush! Enter it under your own name. It's a good name. The Bennetts are one of our oldest families. Ask my wife; she'll tell you that."
"A good name!"
"Yes. I declare, Paine—Bennett, I mean—I shall begin to believe you haven't got the sense I credited you with. I can see what has been the matter with you. You came here, you and your sick mother, with the scandal of your father's crookedness hanging over you and her sickness making her super-sensitive, and you two kept the secret and brooded over it so long that you have come to think you are criminals, too. You're not. You haven't done anything crooked. What's the matter with you, man? Be sensible!"
"Yes, sensible, if you can. I don't care who your father was. He was a smart banker, before he went wrong, and I can see now where you inherited your ability. But never mind that. He's dead; let him stay so. I'm not trying to get him. It's you I want."
"You want ME! Do you mean you would take me into your employ, knowing who I am?"
"Sure! It is because I know WHAT you are that I want you."
"Mr. Colton, you—I don't know what to say to you."
"Try saying 'yes' and see how it seems. It will be a change, anyhow."
"No, no! I cannot; it is impossible."
"Oh, you make me weary! . . . Humph! What is it now? Any more 'reasons'?"
"Yes." I faced him squarely. "Yes," I said, "there is another reason, one that makes it impossible, utterly impossible, if nothing else did. When I tell you what it is you will understand what I mean and agree with me. Your daughter and I have been thrown together a great deal since she came to Denboro. Our meetings have not been of my seeking, nor of hers. Of late I have realized that, for my own sake, for the sake of my peace of mind, I must not meet her. I must not be where she is. I—"
"Here! Stop!" he broke in sharply. "What is this? Do you mean to tell me that you and Mabel—"
"It is not her fault. It is my own, entirely. Mr. Colton, I—"
"Stop, I tell you! Do you mean to tell me that you are—that you have been making love to my daughter?"
"No. Certainly not."
"Then what do you mean? That she has been making love to you?"
"There! Don't act like the Wild Man of Borneo. Do you mean that you are in love with her?"
"Don't you see now why I cannot accept? I must go away. I am going."
"Humph! That will do. . . . Humph! Well, Paine—Bennett, I should say; it is hard to keep track of your names—you are rather—er—reckless, it seems to me. Mabel is our only child and her mother and I, naturally, had planned for her future . . . Have you told her of your—recklessness?"
"Of course not! I shall not see her again. I shall leave Denboro as soon as I can. She will never know."
"Humph! I see . . . I see . . . Well, I don't know that there is anything for me to say."
"There is not."
"I am sorry for you, of course."
There was a sharp rap at the door. Doctor Quimby opened it and entered the room. He glanced from me to his patient and his face expressed sharp disapproval.
"You'd better go, Ros," he snapped. "What is the matter with you? Didn't I tell you not to excite him."
"I'M not excited," observed Colton, drily.
"Clear out this minute!" continued the angry doctor. "Ros Paine, I thought you had more sense."
"So did I," this from "Big Jim". "However, I am learning a lot these days. Good-by, Paine."
I was at the door.
"Oh, by the way," he called after me, "let me make a suggestion. If I were you, Roscoe, I wouldn't leave Denboro to-day. Not before to-morrow morning, at any rate."
I did not understand him and I asked for no explanation. It was the first time he had addressed me by my Christian name, but it was not until afterward that I remembered that fact.
That afternoon I was alone in my haven of refuge, the boathouse. Mother and I had had a long talk. I told her everything that had transpired. I kept back nothing, either of my acts or my feelings. She said she was not sorry for what I had done. She was rather glad, than otherwise, that I had disclosed our secret to Mr. Colton.
"He knows now, Roscoe," she said. "And he was right, too. You and I have brooded over our sorrow and what we considered our disgrace much more than we should. He is right, Boy. We are innocent of any wrong-doing."
"Yes, Mother," I answered, "I suppose we are. But we must keep the secret still. No one else in Denboro must know. You know what gossip there would be. There is enough now. I presume I am called a traitor and a blackguard by every person in the town."
"Why no, you are not. That is the strange thing about it. Luther was up at the post-office this morning and no one seems to know of your sale of the land. Captain Dean has, apparently, kept the news to himself. Why do you suppose he does that?"
"I don't know. I don't know, unless it is because he—no, I can't understand it at all. However, they will know soon enough. By the way, I have never asked Dorinda where Lute was that noon—it seems ages ago—when he was missing at dinner time. And how did he know of Mr. Colton's illness?"
She smiled. "Poor Luther!" she said. "He announced his intention of running away, you remember. As a matter of fact he met the Coltons' chauffeur in the motor car and the chauffeur invited him to go to Bayport with him. The chauffeur had an errand there. Lute accepted—as he says, automobile rides don't come his way every day in the week—and they had trouble with the engine and did not get back until almost night. Then Miss Colton told him of her father's seizure and gave him the note for you. It was to you she turned in her trouble, Boy. She trusts you. Roscoe, I—I think she—"
"Don't say it, Mother. All that is ended. I am going to forget—if I can."
The rest of our conversation need not be written here. She said many things, such as fond mothers say to their sons and which the sons know too well they do not deserve. We discussed my leaving Denboro and she was so brave and self-sacrificing that my conscience smote me.
"I'll stay, Mother," I said. "I can't leave you. I'll stay and fight it out with you. After all, it will not be much worse than it was before I went to the bank."
But she would not hear of my staying. I had a friend in Chicago, a distant relative who knew our story. Perhaps he could help me to a start somewhere. She kissed me and bade me keep up my courage, and I left her. I ate a hurried meal, a combination of breakfast and dinner, and, dodging Lute, who was in the back yard waiting to question me concerning the Coltons, walked down to the boathouse. There, in my armchair, I tried to think, to map out some sort of plan for my future.
It was a hopeless task. I was not interested in it. I did not much care what became of me. If it were not for Mother I should not have cared at all. Nevertheless, for her sake, I must try to plan, and I did.
I was still trying when I heard footsteps approaching the door, the small door at the side, not the big one in front. I did not rise to open the door, nor did I turn my head. The visitor was Lute, probably, and if I kept still he might think I was not within and go away again.
The door opened. "Here he is," said a voice, a voice that I recognized. I turned quickly and sprang to my feet. Standing behind me was Captain Jedediah Dean and with him George Taylor—George Taylor, who should have been—whom I had supposed to be in Washington with his bride!
"Here he is," said Captain Jed, again. "Well, Ros, we've come to see you."
But I paid no attention to him. It was his companion I was staring at. What was he doing here?
"George!" I cried. "GEORGE!"
He stepped forward and held out his hand. He was smiling, but there was a look in his eye which expressed the exact opposite of smiles.
"Ros," he said, quietly, "Ros Paine, you bull-headed, big-hearted old chump, how are you?"
But I could only stare at him. Why had he come to Denboro? What did his coming to me mean? Why had he come with Captain Jed, the man who had vowed that he was done with me forever? And why was the captain looking at me so oddly?
"George!" I cried in alarm, "George, you haven't—you haven't made a fool of yourself? You haven't—"
Captain Jed interrupted me. "He ain't the fool, Ros," he said. "That is, he ain't now. I'm the fool. I ought to have known better. Ros, I—I don't know's you'll give it to me, but anyhow I'm goin' to ask it; I beg your pardon."
"Ros," said Taylor, before I could reply, "don't stand staring as if you were petrified. Sit down and let me look at you. You pig-headed old idiot, you! What do you mean by it? What did you do it for?"
He pushed me into the chair I had just vacated. Captain Dean took another. George remained standing.
"He IS petrified, I do believe!" he exclaimed.
But my petrification was only temporary. I was beginning to understand, and to be more alarmed than ever.
"What are you doing here in Denboro?" I demanded.
Captain Jed answered for him. "He's here because I telegraphed for him yesterday," he said. "I wired him to come straight home and take charge of the bank. I had fired you, like the dumb fool I was, and I wanted him to take command. He got here on the mornin' train."
I remembered what Phin Cahoon had said about the telegram and the captain's making him promise not to mention the name of the person to whom it was sent. It was George, of course. If I had been in a normal state of mind when Phin told me I should have guessed as much.
Taylor took up the conversation. "Yes, I got here," he said. "And when I got here—or a little before—" with a glance at the captain—"I found out what had been going on since I left. You old chump, Ros Paine! What did you do it for?"
I looked at him and then at his companion. What I saw there confirmed my worst suspicions.
"George," I said, "if you have told him you must be crazy."
"I was crazy not to tell him before. I was crazy not to guess what you had been up to. But I didn't suppose anybody would be crazy enough to do what you did, Ros. I didn't imagine for a minute that you would be crazy enough to throw away your job and get yourself into the trouble you knew was sure to come, just to help me. To help ME, by the Lord! Ros! Ros! what can I say to you!"
"You've said enough, and more than enough," I answered, bitterly. "I did what I did so that you might keep your secret. I did it to help you and Nellie. And if you had kept still no one need ever have known, no one but you and I, George. And now you—"
"Shut up, Ros!" he interrupted. "Shut up, I tell you! Why, confound you, what do you think I am? Do you suppose I would let you sacrifice yourself like that, while I set still and saw you kicked out of town? What do you think I am?"
"But what was the use of it?" I demanded. "It was done. Nothing you could say would change it. For Nellie's sake—"
"There! there!" broke in Captain Jed, "Nellie knows. George told her the day they was married. He told her before they was married. He was man enough to do that and I honor him for it. If he'd only come to me then it would have been a mighty sight better. I'd have understood when I heard about your sellin' Colton the land, and I wouldn't have made a jackass of myself by treatin' you as I done. You! the man that sacrificed yourself to keep my girl from breakin' her heart! When I think what you saved us all from I—I—By the Almighty, Ros Paine! I'll make it up to you somehow. I will! I swear I will!"
He turned away and looked out of the window. George laid a hand on his shoulder.
"I am the one to make it up, Cap'n," he said, solemnly. "If I live I'll make it up to Ros here, and to you, and to Nellie, God bless her! I expected you would never speak to me again when I'd told you. Telling you—next to telling Nellie—was the toughest job I ever tackled. But I'll make it up to you both, and to Ros. Thank the Lord, it ain't too late to make it up to him!"
"We'll both make it up to him, George," replied Captain Jed. "As far as we can, we will. If he wants to come back to the bank this minute he can. We'll be proud to have him. But I cal'late," with a smile, "he'll have bigger fish to fry than we can give him. If what we've just heard is true, he will."
"I don't know what you mean," I answered. "And as for the bank—well, you forget one thing: I sold the Shore Lane and the town knows it. How long would the other directors tolerate me in that bank, after that, do you think?"
To my surprise they looked at each other and laughed. Captain Dean shook his head.
"No," he said, "you're mistook, Ros. The town don't know you sold it. I didn't tell 'em because I wanted George in command of that bank afore the row broke loose. I larned of the sale myself, by chance, over to Ostable and I never told anybody except Dorindy Rogers and her fool of a husband. I'll see that they keep still tongues in their heads. And as for the Lane—well, that won't be closed. Colton don't own it no more."
"Don't OWN it," I repeated. "Don't own it! He does. I sold it to him myself."
"Yes. And George, here, bought it back not an hour ago. We saw His Majesty—sick in bed he was, but just as high and mighty and independent as ever—and George bought back the land and the Lane for thirty-five hundred dollars. The old man didn't seem to give a durn about it any more. He'd had his own way, he said, and that was all he cared about. Besides, he ain't goin' to stay in Denboro much longer. The old lady—his wife—is sick of the place and he only come here on her account. He cal'lates that New York is good enough for him. I cal'late 'tis. Anyhow, Denboro won't hang onto his coattails to hold him back. Tell Ros the whole story, George."
George told it, beginning with his receipt of his father-in-law's telegram and his hurried return to the Cape. He had gone directly to Captain Dean and confessed the whole thing. The captain had behaved like a trump, I learned. Instead of denouncing his daughter's husband he had forgiven him freely. Then they had gone to see Colton and George had bought the land.
"And I shall give it to the town," he said. "It's the least I can do. You wonder where the money came from, Ros? I guess you ain't seen the newspapers. There was a high old time in the stock market yesterday and Louisville and Transcontinental climbed half-way to the moon. From being a pauper I'm pretty well fixed."
"I'm heartily glad of it, George," I said. "But there is one thing I don't understand. You say you learned of my selling the land before you reached Denboro. Captain Jed says no one but he and my people knew it. How did you find it out?"
Again my two callers looked at each other.
"Why, somebody—a friend of yours—come to me at the Ostable station and dragged Nellie and me off the train. We rode with that person the rest of the way and—the said person told us what had happened and begged us to help you. Seemed to have made a middling good guess that I COULD help, if I would."
"A person—a friend of mine! Why, I haven't any friend, any friend who knew the truth, or could guess."
"Yes, you have."
"Who was it?"
George laughed aloud and Captain Jed laughed with him.
"I guess I shan't tell you," said the former. "I promised I wouldn't."
They left me soon after this. I tried to make them tell who the mysterious friend might be, but they refused. The kind things they said and the gratitude they both expressed I shall never forget. They did not strenuously urge me to return to the bank, and that seemed strange to me.
"The job's yours if you want it, Ros," said Captain Jed. "We'd be only too happy to have you if you'd come—any time, sooner or later. But I don't think you will."
"No," I answered, "I shall not. I have made other plans. I am going to leave Denboro."
That did not seem to surprise them and I was still more puzzled. They shook hands and went away, promising to call at the house that evening and bring Nellie.
"She wants to thank you, too, Ros," said George.
After they had gone I sat by the big door, looking out at the bay, smooth and beautiful in the afternoon sunlight, and thinking of what they had told me. For Mother's sake I was very glad. It would be easier for her, after I had gone; the townspeople would be friendly, instead of disagreeable. For her sake, I was glad. For myself nothing seemed to make any difference. George Taylor's words—those he had spoken to me that fateful evening when I found him with the revolver beside him—came back to me over and over. "Wait until your time comes. Wait until the girl comes along that you care for more than the whole world. And then see what you'd do. See what it would mean to give her up!"
I was seeing. I knew now what it meant.
I rose and went out of the boathouse. I did not care to meet anyone or speak with anyone. I strolled along the path by the bluff, my old walk, that which I had taken so many times and with such varied feelings, never with such miserable ones as now.
The golden-rod, always late blooming on the Cape, bordered the path with gorgeous yellow. The leaves of the scrub oaks were beginning to turn, though not to fall. I walked on and entered the grove where she and I had met after our adventure with Carver and the stranded skiff. I turned the bend and saw her coming toward me.
I stood still and she came on, came straight to me and held out her hand.
"I was waiting for you," she said. "I was on my way to your house and I saw you coming—so I waited."
"You waited," I stammered. "Why?"
"Because I wished to speak to you and I did not want that—that Mr. Rogers of yours to interrupt me. Why did you go away yesterday without even letting me thank you for what you had done? Why did you do it?"
"Because—because you were very busy and—and I was tired. I went home and to bed."
"You were tired. You must have been. But that is no excuse, no good one. I came down and found you were gone without a word to me. And you had done so much for me—for my father!"
"Your father thanked me this morning, Miss Colton. I saw him in his room and he thanked me. I did not deserve thanks. I was lucky, that was all."
"Father does not call it luck. He told me what you said to him."
"He told you! Did he tell you all I told him?"
"I—I think so. He told me who you were; what your real name was."
"He did! And you were still willing to meet me!"
"Yes. Why not? Does it make any difference that you are Mr. Bennett—instead of Mr. Paine?"
"But my father was Carleton Bennett—the—the—You must have heard of him."
"I never knew your father. I do know his son. And I am very proud to know him."
"But—but, Miss Colton."
"Tell me," she interrupted, quickly, "have you seen Mr. Taylor? He is here in Denboro."
"Yes. I have seen him."
"And he told you about the Lane? That he has bought it?"
"And you will not be," with a smile, "driven from Denboro by that cross old Captain Dean?"
"I shall not be driven—no."
"Then Mr. Taylor did help you. He promised me he would."
"He promised you? When? When did you see George Taylor?"
She appeared confused. "I—I—Of course I saw him at the house this noon, when he came to see Father."
"But he could not have promised you then. He had helped me already. Did you see him before that?"
"Why, how could I? I—"
"Miss Colton, answer me. Was it you that met him at the Ostable station this morning? Was it?"
She was as red as the reddest of the autumn leaves. She laughed, confusedly.
"I did meet him there," she confessed. "That queer Mr. Cahoon, the station agent, told me that Captain Dean had telegraphed him to come. I knew he would probably be on that train. And Mr. Cahoon told me about his being interested in stocks and very much troubled. You had told me, or as much as told me, that you sold the land to get money to help some one. I put two and two together and I guessed the rest. I met him and Nellie and we rode to Denboro together in our auto. He promised me that he would make everything right for you. I am so glad he did!"
I caught my breath with a gasp.
"You did that!" I exclaimed. "You did that, for me!"
"Why not? Surely you had done enough for—us. I could not let you be 'driven from town', you know."
I did not speak. I knew that I must not attempt a reply. I should say too much. She looked up at me, and then down again at the pine-needles beneath our feet.
"Father says he intends to do great things for you," she went on. "He says you are to come with him. He is enthusiastic about it. He believes you are a great man. No one but a great man, he says, could beat the Consolidated Pacific gang single-handed. He says you will be the best investment he ever made."
"I am afraid not," I answered. "Your father made me a generous offer. I wish I might have been able to accept it, but I could not."
"Oh, but you are going to accept."
"No, I am not."
"He says you are. And he always has his way, you know."
"Not in this case, Miss Colton."
"But I want you to accept. Surely you will do it to oblige me."
"What are you going to do; go back to the bank?"
"No, I am going to leave Denboro. I don't know where I shall go. This is good-by, Miss Colton. It is not likely that we shall meet again."
"But why are you going?"
"I cannot tell you."
She was silent, still looking down at the pine-needles. I could not see her face. I was silent also. I knew that I ought to go, that I should not remain there, with her, another moment. Yet I remained.
"So you think this is our parting," she said. "I do not."
"Don't you? I fear you are wrong."
"I am not wrong. You will not go away, Mr.—Bennett. At least, you will not until you go where my father sends you. You will accept his offer, I think."
"You are mistaken."
"No. I think I am not mistaken. I think you will accept it, because—because I ask you to."
"I cannot, Miss Colton."
"And your reason?"
"That I cannot tell anyone."
"But you told my father."
I was stricken dumb again.
She went on, speaking hurriedly, and not raising her eyes.
"You told my father," she repeated, "and he told me."
"He told you!" I cried.
"Yes, he told me. I—I am not sure that he was greatly surprised. He thought it honorable of you and he was very glad you did tell him, but I think he was not surprised."
The oaks and the pines and the huckleberry bushes were dancing great giddy-go-rounds, a reflection of the whirlpool in my brain. Out of the maelstrom I managed to speak somehow.
"He was not surprised!" I repeated. "He was not—not—What do you mean?"
She did not answer. She drew away from me a step, but I followed her.
"Why wasn't he surprised?" I asked again.
"Because—because—Oh, I don't know! What have I been saying! I—Please don't ask me!"
"But why wasn't he surprised?"
"Because—because—" she hesitated. Then suddenly she looked up into my face, her wonderful eyes alight. "Because," she said, "I had told him myself, sir."
I seized her hands.
"YOU had told him? You had told him that I—I—"
"No," with a swift shake of the head, "not you. I—I did not know that—then. I told him that I—"
But I did not wait to hear any more.
Some time after that—I do not know how long after and it makes no difference anyway—I began to remember some resolutions I had made, resolves to be self-sacrificing and all that sort of thing.
"But, my dear," I faltered, "I am insane! I am stark crazy! How can I think of such a thing! Your mother—what will she say?"
She looked up at me; looking up was not as difficult now, and, besides, she did not have to look far. She looked up and smiled.
"I think Mother is more reconciled," she said. "Since she learned who you were she seems to feel better about it."
I shook my head, ruefully. "Yet she referred to me as a 'nobody' only this morning," I observed.
"Yes, but that was before she knew you were a Bennett. The Bennetts are a very good family, so she says. And she informed me that she always expected me to throw myself away, so she was not altogether unprepared."
I sighed. "Throwing yourself away is exactly what you have done, I'm afraid," I answered.
She put her hand to my lips. "Hush!" she whispered. "At all events, I made a lucky throw. I'm very glad you caught me, dear."
There was a rustle of leaves just behind us and a startled exclamation. I turned and saw Lute Rogers standing there in the path, an expression on his face which I shall not attempt to describe, for no description could do justice to it. We looked at Lute and he looked at us.
He was the first to recover.
"My time!" exclaimed Lute. "My TIME!"
He turned and fled.
"Come here!" I shouted after him. "Come back here this minute! Lute, come back!"
Lute came, looking shamefaced and awkward.
"Where were you going?" I demanded.
"I—I was cal'latin' to go and tell Dorindy," he faltered.
"You'll tell nobody. Nobody, do you hear! I'll tell Dorinda myself, when it is necessary. What were you doing here? spying on me in that fashion."
"I—I wan't spyin', Ros. Honest truth, I wan't. I—I didn't know you and she was—was—"
"Never mind that. What were you doing here?"
"I was chasin' after you, Ros. I just heard the most astonishing thing. Jed Dean was to the house to make Dorindy and me promise to say nothin' about that Shore Lane 'cause you never sold it, and he said Mr. Colton had offered you a turrible fine job along of him and that you was goin' to take it. I wanted to find you and ask it 'twas true. 'Taint true, is it, Ros?" wistfully. "By time! I wish 'twas."
Before I could answer Mabel spoke.
"Yes, it is true, Mr. Rogers," she said. "It is quite true and you may tell anyone you like. It is true, isn't it, Roscoe?"
What answer could I make? What answer would you have made under the circumstances?
"Yes," I answered, with a sigh of resignation. "I guess it is true, Lute."