"When did you come? How did you find your father and mother?" inquired Roberta demurely.
"Well and hearty as ever, and apparently glad to see their son—as he was to see them. I've been devoting myself to them for three days now, and mean to give them the whole week. It's only fair—isn't it?—after being away so long. How fortunate for me that I should meet you; I might not have found it out till I had missed much time."
"You've missed much time already," put in Uncle Rufus. "They came last night."
"Put your hat on, Forbes," was Aunt Ruth's admonition as Westcott continued to stand beside Roberta, exchanging question and answer concerning the long interval which had intervened since they last met. "Come over to supper to-night, and then you young people can talk without danger of catching your death of cold."
Westcott laughed and accepted, but the hat was not replaced upon his smooth, dark head until the sleigh had gone on.
"Subjects always keep uncovered before their queen," whispered Ruth in Uncle Rufus's ear, and he laughed and nodded.
"Times have changed since I was a young man," said he. "A fellow would have looked queer in my day unwinding his comforter and pulling off his coonskin cap and standing holding those things while he talked on a February morning. He'd have gone home and taken some pepper-tea to ward off the effects of the chill!"
"There's Benson's," Roberta interrupted, "and it's open. Why, look at the people in front of the windows! Look at the windows themselves. There must be a new firm. Poor Hugh!"
"There's a new sign over the old one; a 'Successors to,' I think; but Benson's name is on it, 'Benson & Company,'" announced Ruth, straining her eyes to make it out.
"Somebody must have come to the rescue," said Uncle Rufus with joyous interest. "Well, well; the thing has been kept surprisingly still, and I can't think who it can be, but I'm certainly glad. I hated to see the boy fail. I suppose you all want to go in?"
They unquestionably did, but they wanted first to sit still and look at the windows from their vantage point above the passers-by on foot, who were all stopping as they came along. It was small wonder that they should stop. The town of Eastman had never in its experience seen within its borders window displays like these.
Benson's possessed the advantage of having larger fronts of clear plate-glass than any store in town. As it was a corner store, there were not only two big windows on the front but one equally large upon the side. Each of these showed an artful arrangement of fresh and alluring white goods, and in the centre of each was a special scheme arranged with figures and furnishings to form a charming tableau. In one was the sewing-room scene, adapted from that one which had first challenged Richard's interest in his grandfather's store; in a second a children's tea-party drew many admiring comments from the crowd; and in the side window the figure of a pretty bride with veil and orange blossoms suggested that the surrounding draperies were fit for uses such as hers. The clever adaptability of Carson's art showed in the fact that the figure wore no longer the costly French robe with which she had been draped when she stood in a glass case at Kendrick & Company's, but a delicate frock of simpler materials, such as any village girl might afford, yet so cunningly fashioned that a princess might have worn it as well, and not have been ashamed.
Aunt Ruth and her nieces went enthusiastically in, and Uncle Rufus, declaring that he must go also and congratulate Hugh on this extraordinary transformation, tied his horses across the street where they could not interfere with the view of passing sleighs.
Entering, the visitors found inside the same atmosphere of successful, timely display of fresh and attractive goods as had been promised by the outside. The store did not look like a village store at all; its whole air was metropolitan. The smallest counter carried out this effect; on every hand were goods selected with rare skill, and this description held good of the cheaper articles as well as of those more expensive.
"Well, Hugh, we don't understand, but we are very glad," said Aunt Ruth heartily, shaking hands with the young man who advanced to meet them.
"That's kind of you. It goes without saying that I am very glad, too," responded the proprietor of the place. His thin face flushed a little as he greeted the others, and his eyes, like Westcott's, dwelt a trifle longer on the face of one of the party than on any of the others.
"Rob, I believe you'll find your lavender linen here," said Ruth in her sister's ear, as Uncle Rufus came in and Benson began to show them all about the store. "Look, there are all kinds of white linens; let's stop and ask."
With a word of explanation, Roberta delayed at the counter Ruth had indicated, making inquiry for the goods she sought. It chanced that this department was next to an inclosure which was partially of glass, the new office of the firm. The old firm had had no office, only a desk in a dark corner. In this place two men were talking. One was facing the store, his glance even as he spoke upon the way things were going outside; the other's back was turned. But Ruth, gazing interestedly around as her sister examined linens, discovered something familiar about the set of one of the heads just beyond the glass partition, though she could not see the face. When this head was suddenly thrown back with a peculiar motion she had noted when its owner was particularly amused over something, Ruth said to herself: "Why, that's Mr. Richard Kendrick! What in the world is he doing out here at Eastman?"
As if she had called him Richard turned about and his look encountered Ruth's. The next instant he was out of the glass inclosure and at her side. Roberta, hearing Ruth's low but eager, "Why, Mr. Kendrick, who ever expected to see you in Eastman!" turned about with an expression of astonishment, which was reflected in both the faces before her.
An interested village salesgirl now looked on at a little scene the like of which had never come within the range of her experience. That three people, clearly so surprised to meet in this particular spot, should not proceed voluminously to explain to each other within her hearing the cause of their surprise, was to her an extraordinary thing. But after the first moment's expression of wonder the three seemed to accept the fact as a matter of course, and began to exchange observations concerning the weather, the roads, and various other matters of comparatively small importance. It was not until Uncle Rufus, rounding a high-piled counter with his wife and Hugh Benson, came upon the group, that anything was said of which the curious young person behind the counter could make enough to guess at the situation.
"Well, well, if it isn't Mr. Kendrick!" he exclaimed, after one keen look, and hastened forward, hand outstretched. So the group now became doubled in size, and Uncle Rufus expressed great pleasure at seeing again the young man whose hospitality he had enjoyed during the Christmas house-party.
"But I didn't suppose we should ever see you up here in our town," said he, "especially in winter. Come by the morning train?"
"I've been here for a month, most of the time," Richard told him.
"You have? And didn't come to see us? Well, now—"
"I didn't know this was your home, Mr. Gray," admitted the young man frankly. "I don't remember your mentioning the name of Eastman while you and Mrs. Gray were with us. Probably you did, and if I had realized you were here—"
"You'd have come? Well, you know now, and I hope you'll waste no time in getting out to the 'Gray Farm.' Only two miles out, and the trolley runs by within a few rods of our turn of the road—conductor'll tell you. Better come to-night," he urged genially, "seeing my nieces are here and can help make you feel at home. They'll be going back in a day or two."
Richard, smiling, looked at Aunt Ruth, then at Roberta. "Do come," urged Aunt Ruth as cordially as her husband, and Roberta gave a little nod of acquiescence.
"I shall be delighted to come," he agreed.
"Putting up at the hotel?" inquired Uncle Rufus.
"I'm staying for the present with my friend Mr. Benson," Richard explained, with a glance toward Benson himself, who had moved aside to speak to a clerk. "We were classmates at college. We have—gone into business together here."
It was out. As he spoke the words his face changed colour a little, but his eyes remained steadily fixed on Uncle Rufus.
"Well, well," exclaimed Mr. Rufus Gray. "So it's you who have come to the rescue of—"
But Richard interrupted him quickly. "I beg your pardon, not at all," said he. "It is my friend who has come to my rescue—given me the biggest interest I have yet discovered—the game of business. I'm having the time of my life. With the help of our mutual friend, Mr. Carson, who is to be the business manager of the new house, we hope to make a success."
Roberta was looking curiously at him, and his eyes suddenly met hers. For an instant the encounter lasted, and it ended by her glance dropping from his. There was something new to her in his face, something she could not understand. Instead of its former rather studiedly impassive expression there was an awakened look, a determined look, as if he had something on hand he meant to do—and to do as soon as the present interview should be over. Strangely enough, it was the first time she had met him when he seemed not wholly occupied with herself, but rather on his way to some affair of strong interest in which she had no concern and from which she was detaining him. It was not that he was failing in the extreme courtesy she had learned to expect from him under all conditions. But—well, it struck her that he would return to his companion in the glass-screened office and immediately forget her. This was a change, indeed!
"However you choose to put it," declared Uncle Rufus kindly, "it's a mighty fine thing for Hugh, and we wish you both success."
"You will have it. I have found my lavender linen," said Roberta, turning back to the counter.
Richard came around to her side. "Didn't you expect to find it?" he inquired with interest.
"I really didn't at all. We seldom find summer goods shown in a town like this till spring is well along, least of all coloured dress linens. But you have several shades, besides a beautiful lot of white."
"That's Carson's buying," said he, fingering a corner of the lilac-tinted goods she held up. "I shouldn't know it from gingham. I didn't know what gingham was till the other day. But I can recognize it now on sight, and am no end proud of my knowledge."
"I suppose you are familiar with silk," said she with a quick glance.
He returned it. "Aren't you?"
"I'm not specially fond of it."
"What fabrics do you like best?"
"Thin, sheer things, fine but durable."
"No, cottons, batistes, voiles—that sort of thing."
"I'm afraid you've got me now," he owned, looking puzzled. "Perhaps I'd know them if I saw them. If Benson has any—I mean, if we have any," he amended quickly, "I'd like to have you see them. Let me go and ask Carson."
He was off to consult the man in the office and was back in a minute. When Roberta had purchased the yard of lavender linen he led her into another aisle and requested the clerk to show her his finest goods. Roberta looked on, much amused, while the display was made, and praised liberally. But suddenly she pounced upon a piece of white material with a tiny white flower embroidered upon its delicate surface.
"That's one of the prettiest pieces of Swiss muslin I ever saw," said she. "And at such a reasonable price. It looks like one of the finest imported Swisses. I'm going to have that pattern this minute."
She gave the order without hesitation.
"I didn't know women ever shopped like that," said Richard in her ear.
"Why, bought the thing right off without asking to see everything in the store. That's what—I've been told they did."
"Not if they're wise—when they see a thing like that. There was only the one pattern. Why, another woman might have walked up and said right over my shoulder that she would take it."
"If she had I'd have seen that you got it," declared Richard.
He accompanied the party to the door when they went; he saw them to the sleigh and tucked them in.
"Bareheaded again," observed Uncle Rufus, regarding him with interest.
"Again?" queried Richard.
"All the young men we meet this morning insist on standing round outdoors with their hats off," explained the elder man. "It looks reckless to me."
"It would be more reckless not to, I imagine," returned Richard, laughing with Ruth and Roberta.
"We'll see you to-night," Uncle Rufus reminded him as he drove off. "Bring Hugh with you. I asked him in the store, but he seemed to hesitate. It will do him good to get out."
When the sleigh was a quarter of a mile up the road Ruth turned to her uncle. "Do you imagine, Uncle Rufus," said she, "that all those men you've asked for to-night will be grateful—when they see one another?"
"Well, now, we're glad to see you at our place, Mr. Kendrick," was Mr. Rufus Gray's hearty greeting. He had heard the sound of the motor-car as it came to a standstill just outside his window, and was in the doorway to receive his guests. "As for Hugh, he knows he's always welcome, though it's a good while since he took advantage of it. Sit down here by the fire and warm up before we send you out again. You see," he explained enjoyingly, "we have instructions what to do with you."
Richard Kendrick noted the pleasant room with its great fireplace roaring with logs ablaze; he noted also its absence of occupants. Only Aunt Ruth, coming forward with an expression of warm hospitality on her face, was to be discovered. "They're all down at the river, skating," she told the young men. "Forbes Westcott is just home again, and he and Robby had so much to talk over we asked him out to supper. He and the girls—and Anna Drummond, one of our neighbours' daughters," she explained to Kendrick, "were taken with the idea of going skating. They didn't wait for you, because they wanted to get a fire built. When you're warmed up you can go down."
"There'll be a girl apiece for you," observed Uncle Rufus. "Hugh knows Anna—went to school with her. She's a fine girl, eh, Hugh?"
"She certainly is," agreed Benson heartily. "But I don't see how either of us is to skate with her or with anybody without—"
"Oh, that's all right. Look there," and Uncle Rufus pointed to a long row of skates lying on the floor in a corner. "All the nieces and nephews leave their skates here to have 'em handy when they come."
So presently the two young men were rushing down the winding, snowy road which led through pasture and meadow for a quarter of a mile toward a beckoning bonfire.
"I don't know when I've gone skating," said Hugh Benson.
"The last time I skated was two years ago on the Neva at St. Petersburg. Jove! but it was a carnival!" And Richard's thoughts went back for a minute to the face of the girl he had skated with. He had not cared much for skating since that night. All other opportunities had seemed tame after that.
"You've travelled a great deal—had a lot of experiences," Benson said, with a suppressed sigh.
"A few. But they don't prevent my looking forward to a new one to-night. I never went skating on a river in the country before. How far can you go?"
"Ten miles, if you like, down. Two miles up. There they are, coming round the bend four abreast. Westcott has more than his share of girls."
"More than he wants, probably. He'll cling to one and joyfully hand over the others."
"You'll like Anna Drummond; we're old school friends. Forbes and Miss Roberta naturally seem to get together wherever they are. And Miss Ruth is a mighty nice little girl."
Across the blazing bonfire two men scrutinized each other: Forbes Westcott, one of the cleverest attorneys of a large city, a man with a rising reputation, who held himself as a man does who knows that every day advances his success; Richard Kendrick, well-known young millionaire, hitherto a travelled idler and spender of his income, now a newly fledged business man with all his honours yet to be won. They looked each other steadily in the eye as they grasped hands by the bonfire, and in his inmost heart each man recognized in the other an antagonist.
Richard skated away with Miss Drummond, a wholesomely gay and attractive girl who could skate as well as she could talk and laugh. He devoted himself to her for half an hour; then, with a skill of which he was master from long exercise, he brought about a change of partners. The next time he rounded the bend into a path which led straight down the moonlight it was in the company he longed for.
Richard's heart leaped exultantly as he skated around the river bend in the moonlight with Roberta. And when his hands gathered hers into his close grasp it was somehow as if he had taken hold of an electric battery. He distinctly felt the difference between her hands and those of the other girl. It was very curious and he could not wholly understand it.
"What kind of gloves do you wear?" was his first inquiry. He held up the hand which was not in Roberta's muff and tried to see it in the dim light.
"You are deep in the new business, aren't you?" she mocked. "Whatever they are, will you put them into your stock?"
"Don't you dare make fun of my new business. I'm in it for scalps and have no time for joking. Of course I want to put this make in stock. I never took hold of so warm a hand on so cold a night. The warmth comes right through your glove and mine to my hand, runs up my arm, and stirs up my circulation generally. It was running a little cold with some of the things Miss Drummond was telling me."
"What could they be?"
"About how all the rest of you know each other so well. She described all sorts of good times you have all had together on this river in the summer. It seems odd that Benson never told me about any of them while we were together at college."
"They have happened mostly in the last two summers, since Mr. Benson left college. We always spend at least part of our summers here, and we have had worlds of fun on the river and beside it—and in it."
"I'm glad I'm a business man in Eastman. I can imagine what this river is like in summer. It's wonderful to-night, isn't it? Let's skate on down to the mouth and out to sea. What do you say?"
"A beautiful plan. We have a good start; we must make time or it will be moonset before we come to the sea."
"This is a glorious stroke; let's hit it up a little, swing a little farther—and make for the mouth of the river. No talking till we come in sight. We're off!"
It was ten miles to the mouth of the river, as they both understood, so this was nonsense of the most obvious sort. But the imagination took hold of them and they swung away on over the smooth, shining floor with the long vigorous strokes which are so exhilarating to the accomplished skater. In silence they flew, only the warm, clasped hands making a link between them, their faces turned straight toward the great golden disk in the eastern heavens. Richard was feeling that he could go on indefinitely, and was exulting in his companion's untiring progress, when he felt her slowing pull upon his hands.
"Tired?" he asked, looking down at her.
"Not much, but we've all the way back to go—and we ought not to be away so long."
"Oughtn't we? I'd like to be away forever—with you!"
She looked straight up at him. His eyes were like black coals in the dim light. His hands would have tightened on hers, but she drew them away.
"Oh, no, you wouldn't, Mr. Richard Kendrick," said she, as quietly as one can whose breath comes with some difficulty after long-sustained exertion. "By the time we reached—even the mouth of the river, you'd be tired of my company."
"Should I? I think not. I've thought of nothing but you since the day I saw you first."
"Really? That's—how long? Was it November when you came to help Uncle Calvin? This is February. And you've never spent so much as a whole hour alone with me. You see, you don't even know me. What a foolish thing to say to a girl you barely know!"
"Foolish, is it?" He felt his heart racing now. What other girl he knew would have answered him like that? "Then you shall hear something that backs it up. I've loved you since that day I saw you first. What will you do with that?"
She was silent for a moment. Then she turned, striking out toward home. He was instantly after her, reached for her hands, and took her along with him. But he forced her to skate slowly.
"You'll trample on that, too, will you?" said he, growing wrathful under her silence.
But she answered, quite gently, now: "No, Mr. Kendrick, I don't trample on that. No girl would. I simply—know you are mistaken."
"In what? My own feeling? Do you think I don't know—"
"I know you don't know. I'm not your kind of a girl, Mr. Kendrick. You think I am, because—well, perhaps because my eyes are blue and my eyelashes black; just such things as that do mislead people. I can dance fairly well—"
He smothered an angry exclamation.
"And skate well—and play the 'cello a little—and—that's nearly all you know about me. You don't even know whether I can teach well—or talk well—or what is stored away in my mind. And I know just as little about you."
"I've learned one thing about you in this last minute," he muttered. "You can keep your head."
"Why not?" There was a note of laughter in her voice. "There needs to be one who keeps her head when the other loses his—all because of a little winter moonlight. What would the summer moonlight do to you, I wonder?"
"Roberta Gray"—his voice was rough—"the moonlight does it no more than the sunlight. Whatever you think, I'm not that kind of fellow. The day I saw you first you had just come in out of the rain. You went back into it and I saw you go—and wanted to go with you. I've been wanting it ever since."
They moved on in silence which lasted until they were within a quarter-mile of the bonfire, whose flashing light they could see above the banks which intervened. Then Roberta spoke:
"Mr. Kendrick"—and her voice was low and rich with its kindest inflections—"I don't want you to think me careless or hard because I have treated what you have said to-night in a way that you don't like. I'm only trying to be honest with you. I'm quite sure you didn't mean to say it to me when you came to-night, and—we all do and say things on a night like this that we should like to take back next day. It's quite true—what I said—that you hardly know me, and whatever it is that takes your fancy it can't be the real Roberta Gray, because you don't know her!"
"What you say is," he returned, staring straight ahead of him, "that I can't possibly know what you really are, at all; but you know so well what I am that you can tell me exactly what my own thoughts and feelings are."
"Oh, no, I didn't mean—"
"That's precisely what you do mean. I'm so plainly labelled 'worthless' that you don't have to stop to examine me. You—"
"I beg your pardon. I can tell you exactly what you think of me: A young fool who runs after the latest sensation, to drop it when he finds a newer one. His head turned by every pretty girl—to whom he says just the sort of thing he has said to you to-night. Superficial and ordinary, incapable of serious thought on any of the subjects that interest you. As for this business affair in Eastman—that's just a caprice, a game to be dropped when he tires of it. Everything in life will be like that to him, including his very friends. Come, now—isn't that what you've been thinking? There's no use denying it. Nearly every time I've seen you you've said some little thing that has shown me your opinion of me. I won't say there haven't been times in my life when I may have deserved it, but on my honour I don't think I deserve it now."
"Then I won't think it," said Roberta promptly, looking up. "I truly don't want to do you an injustice. But you are so different from the other men I have known—my brothers, my friends—that I can hardly imagine your seeing things from my point of view—"
"But you can see things from mine without any difficulty!"
"It isn't fair, is it?" Her tone was that of the comrade, now. "But you know women are credited with a sort of instinct—even intuition—that leads them safely where men's reasoning can't always follow."
"It never leads them astray, by any chance?"
"Yes, I think it does sometimes," she owned frankly. "But it's as well for the woman to be on her guard, isn't it? Because, sometimes, you know, she loses her head. And when that happens—"
"All is lost? Or does a man's reasoning, slower and not so infallible, but sometimes based on greater knowledge, step in and save the day?"
"It often does. But, in this case—well, it's not just a case of reasoning, is it?"
"The case of my falling in love with a girl I've only known—slightly—for four months? It has seemed to me all along it was just that. It's been a case of the head sanctioning the heart—and you probably know it's not always that way with a young man's experiences. Every ideal I've ever known—and I've had a few, though you might not think it—every good thought and purpose, have been stimulated by my contact with the people of your father's house. And since I have met you some new ideals have been born. They have become very dear to me, those new ideals, Miss Roberta, though they've had only a short time to grow. It hurts to have you treat me as if you thought me incapable of them."
"I'm sorry," she said simply, and her hands gave his a little quick pressure which meant apology and regret. His heart warmed a very little, for he had been sure she was capable of great generosity if appealed to in the right way. But justice and generosity were not all he craved, and he could see quite clearly that they were all he was likely to get from her as yet.
"You think," he said, pursuing his advantage, "we know too little of each other to be even friends. You are confident my tastes and pleasures are entirely different from yours; especially that my notions of real work are so different that we could never measure things with the same footrule."
He looked down at her searchingly.
She nodded. "Something like that," she admitted. "But that doesn't mean that either tastes or notions in either case are necessarily unworthy, only that they are different."
"I wonder if they are? What if we should try to find out? I'm going to stick pretty closely to Eastman this winter, but of course I shall be in town more or less. May I come to see you, now and then, if I promise not to become bothersome?"
It was her turn to look up searchingly at him. If he had expected the usual answer to such a request, he began, before she spoke, to realize that it was by no means a foregone conclusion that he should receive usual answers from her to any questioning whatsoever. But her reply surprised him more than he had ever been surprised by any girl in his life.
"Mr. Kendrick," said she slowly, "I wish that you need not see me again till—suppose we say Midsummer Day,[A] the twenty-fourth of June, you know."
[Footnote A: Midsummer comes at the time of the summer solstice, about June 21st, but Midsummer Day, the Feast of St. John the Baptist, is the 24th of June.]
He stared at her. "If you put it that way," he began stiffly, "you certainly need not—"
"But I didn't put it that way. I said I wished that you need not see me. That is quite different from wishing I need not see you. I don't mind seeing you in the least—"
"That's good of you!"
"Don't be angry. I'm going to be quite frank with you—"
"I'm prepared for that. I can't remember that you've ever been anything else."
"Please listen to me, Mr. Kendrick. When I say that I wish you would not see me—"
"You said 'need not.'"
"I shall have to put it 'would not' to make you understand. When I say I wish you would not see me until Midsummer I am saying the very kindest thing I can. Just now you are under the impression—hallucination—that you want to see much of me. To prove that you are mistaken I'm going to ask this of you—not to have anything whatever to do with me until at least Midsummer. If you carry out my wish you will find out for yourself what I mean—and will thank me for my wisdom."
"It's a wish, is it? It sounds to me more like a decree."
"It's not a decree. I'll not refuse to see you if you come. But if you will do as I ask I shall appreciate it more than I can tell you."
"It is certainly one of the cleverest schemes of getting rid of a fellow I ever heard. Hang it all! do you expect me not to understand that you are simply letting me down easy? It's not in reason to suppose that you're forbidding all other men the house. I beg your pardon; I know that's none of my business; but it's not in human nature to keep from saying it, because of course that's bound to be the thing that cuts. If you were going into a convent, and all other fellows were cooling their heels outside with me, I could stand it."
"My dear Mr. Kendrick, you can stand it in any case. You're going to put all this out of mind and work at building up this business here in Eastman with Mr. Benson. You will find it a much more interesting game than the old one of—"
"Of what? Running after every pretty girl? For of course that's what you think I've done."
She did not answer that. He said something under his breath, and his hands tightened on hers savagely. They were rounding the last bend but one in the river, and the bonfire was close at hand.
"Can't you understand," he ground out, "that every other thought and feeling and experience I've ever had melts away before this? You can put me under ban for a year if you like; but if at the end of that time you're not married to another man you'll find me at your elbow. I told you I'd make you respect me; I'll do more, I'll make you listen to me. And—if I promise not to come where you have to look at me till Midsummer, till the twenty-fourth of June—heaven knows why you pick out that day—I'll not promise not to make you think of me!"
"Oh, but that's part of what I mean. You mustn't send me letters and books and flowers—"
"Because those things will help to keep this idea before your mind. I want you to forget me, Mr. Kendrick—do you realize that?—forget me absolutely all the rest of the winter and spring. By that time—"
"I'll wonder who you are when we do meet, I suppose?"
"All right. I agree to the terms. No letters, no books, no—ye gods! if I could only send the flowers now! Who would expect to win a girl without orchids? You do, you certainly do, rate me with the light-minded, don't you? Music also is proscribed, of course; that's the one other offering allowed at the shrine of the fair one. All right—all right—I'll vanish, like a fairy prince in a child's story. But before I go I—"
With a dig of his steel-shod heel he brought himself and Roberta to a standstill. He bent over her till his face was rather close to hers. She looked back at him without fear, though she both saw and felt the tenseness with which he was making his farewell speech.
"Before I go, I say, I'm going to tell you that if you were any other girl on the old footstool I'd have one kiss from you before I let go of you if I knew it meant I'd never have another. I could take it—"
She did not shrink from him by a hair's breadth, but he felt her suddenly tremble as if with the cold.
"—but I want you to know that I'm going to wait for it till—Midsummer Day. Then"—he bent still closer—"you will give it to me yourself. I'm saying this foolhardy sort of thing to give you something to remember all these months—I've got to. You'll have so many other people saying things to you when I can't that I've got to startle you in order to make an impression that will stick. That one will, won't it?"
A reluctant smile touched her lips. "It's quite possible that it may," she conceded. "It probably would, whoever had the audacity to say it. But—to know a fate that threatens is to be forewarned. And—fortunately—a girl can always run away."
"You can't run so far that I can't follow. Meanwhile, tell me just one thing—"
"I'll tell you nothing more. We've been gone for ages now—there come the others—please start on."
"Good-bye, dear," said he, under his breath. "Good-bye—till Midsummer. But then—"
"No, no, you must not say it—or think it."
"I'm going to think it, and so are you. I defy you to forget it. You may see that lawyer Westcott every day, and no matter what you're saying to him, every once in a while will bob up the thought—Midsummer Day!"
"Hush! I won't listen! Please skate faster!"
"You shall listen—to just one thing more. Just halfway between now and Midsummer may I come to see you—just once?"
"Because—I shall not want to see you."
"That's good," said he steadily. "Then let me tell you that I should not come even if you would let me. I wanted you to know that."
A little, half-smothered laugh came from her in spite of herself, in which he rather grimly joined. Then the others, calling questions and reproaches, bore down upon them, and the evening for Richard Kendrick was over. But the fight he meant to win was just begun.
"Grandfather, have you a good courage for adventure?"
Matthew Kendrick looked up from his letters. His grandson Richard stood before him, his face lighted by that new look of expectancy and enthusiasm which the older man so often noted now. It was early in the day, Mr. Kendrick having but just partaken of his frugal breakfast. He had eaten alone this morning, having learned to his surprise that Richard was already off.
"Why, Dick? What do you want of me?" his grandfather asked, laying down his letters. They were important, but not so important, to his mind, as the giving ear to his grandson. It was something about the business, he had no doubt. The boy was always talking about the business these days, and he found always a ready listener in the old man who was such a pastmaster in the whole difficult subject.
"It's the mildest sort of weather—bright sun, good roads most of the way, and something worth seeing at the other end. Put on your fur-lined coat, sir, will you? and come with me up to Eastman. I want to show you the new shop."
Mr. Kendrick's eye brightened. So the boy wanted him, did he? Wanted to take him off for the day, the whole day, with himself. It was pleasant news. But he hesitated a little, looking toward the window, where the late March sun was, surely enough, streaming in warmly. The bare branches outside were motionless; moreover, there was no wind, such as had prevailed of late.
"I can keep you perfectly warm," Richard added, seeing the hesitation. "There's an electric foot-warmer in the car, and you shall have a heavy rug. I'll have you there in a couple of hours, and you'll not be even chilled. If the weather changes, you can come back by train. Please come—will you?"
"I believe I will, Dick, if you'll not drive too fast. I should like to see this wonderful new store, to be sure."
"We'll go any pace you like, sir. I've been looking for a day when you could make the trip safely, and this is it." He glanced at the letters. "Could you be ready in—half an hour?"
"As soon as I can dictate four short replies. Ring for Mr. Stanton, please, and I'll soon be with you."
Richard went out as his grandfather's private secretary came in. Although Matthew Kendrick no longer felt it necessary to go to his office in the great store every day, he was accustomed to attend to a certain amount of selected correspondence, and ordinarily spent an hour after breakfast in dictation to a young stenographer who came to him for the purpose.
Within a half hour the two were off, Mr. Kendrick being quite as alert in the matter of dispatching business and getting under way toward fresh affairs as he had ever been. It was with an expression of interested anticipation that the old man, wrapped from head to foot, took his place in the long, low-hung roadster, beneath the broad hood which Richard had raised, that his passenger might be as snug as possible.
For many miles the road was of macadam, and they bowled along at a rate which consumed the distance swiftly, though not too fast for Mr. Kendrick's comfort. Richard artfully increased his speed by fractional degrees, so that his grandfather, accustomed to being conveyed at a very moderate mileage about the city in his closed car, should not be startled by the sense of flight which he might have had if the young man had started at his usual break-neck pace.
They did not talk much, for Matthew Kendrick was habitually cautious about using his voice in winter air, and Richard was too engaged with the car and with his own thoughts to attempt to keep up a one-sided conversation. More than once, however, a brief colloquy took place. One of the last of these, before approaching their destination, was as follows:
"Keeping warm, grandfather?"
"Perfectly, Dick, thanks to your foot-warmer."
"Tired, at all?"
"Not a particle. On the contrary, I find the air very stimulating."
"I thought you would. Wonderful day for March, isn't it?"
"We'll be there before you know it. There's one bad stretch of a couple of miles, beyond the turn ahead, and another just this side of Eastman, but Old Faithful here will make light work of 'em. She could plough through a quicksand if she had to, not to mention spring mud to the hubs."
"The car seems powerful," said the old man, smiling behind his upturned fur collar. "I suppose a young fellow like you wouldn't be content with anything that couldn't pull at least ten times as heavy a load as it needed to."
"I suppose not," laughed Richard. "Though it's not so much a question of a heavy load as of plenty of power when you want it, and of speed—all the time. Suppose we were being chased by wild Indians right now, grandfather. Wouldn't it be a satisfaction to walk away from them like—this?"
The car shot ahead with a long, lithe spring, as if she had been using only a fraction of her power, and had reserves greater than could be reckoned. Her gait increased as she flew down the long straightaway ahead until her speedometer on the dash recorded a pace with which the fastest locomotive on the track which ran parallel with the road would have had to race with wide-open throttle to keep neck to neck. Richard had not meant to treat his grandfather to an exhibition of this sort, being well aware of the older man's distaste for modern high speed, but the sight of the place where he was in the habit of racing with any passing train was too much for his young blood and love of swift flight, and he had covered the full two-mile stretch before he could bring himself to slow down to a more moderate gait.
Then he turned to look at as much of his grandfather's face as he could discern between cap-brim and collar. The eagle eyes beneath their heavy brows were gazing straight ahead, the firmly moulded lips were close-set, the whole profile, with its large but well-cut nose, suggested grim endurance. Matthew Kendrick had made no remonstrance, nor did he now complain, but Richard understood.
"You didn't like that, did you, grandfather? I had no business to do it, when I said I wouldn't. Did I chill you, sir? I'm sorry," was his quick apology.
"You didn't chill my body, Dick," was the response. "You did make me realize the difference between—youth and age."
"That's not what I ever want to do," declared the young man, with swift compunction. "Not when your age is worth a million times my youth, in knowledge and power. And of course I'm showing up a particularly unfortunate trait of youth—to lose its head! Somehow all the boy in me comes to the top when I see that track over there, even when there's no competing train. Did you ever know a boy who didn't want to be an engine driver?"
"I was a boy once," said Matthew Kendrick. "Trains in my day were doing well when they made twenty-five miles an hour. I shouldn't mind your racing with one of those."
"I'm racing with one of the fastest engines ever built when I set up a store in Eastman and try to appropriate some of your methods. I wonder what you'll think of it?" said Richard gayly. "Well, here's the bad stretch. Sit tight, grandfather. I'll pick out the best footing there is, but we may jolt about a good bit. I'm going to try what can be done to get these fellows to put a bottom under their spring mud!"
When the town was reached Richard convoyed his companion straight to the best hotel, saw that he had a comfortable chair and as appetizing a meal as the house could afford, and let him rest for as long a time afterward as he himself could brook waiting. When Mr. Kendrick professed himself in trim for whatever might come next Richard set out with him for the short walk to the store of Benson & Company.
The young man's heart was beating with surprising rapidity as the two approached the front of the brick building which represented his present venture into the business world. He knew just how keen an eye was to inspect the place, and what thorough knowledge was to pass judgment upon it.
"Here we are," he said abruptly, with an effort to speak lightly. "These are our front windows. Carson dresses them himself. He seems a wonder to me—I can't get hold of it at all. Rather a good effect, don't you think?"
He was distinctly nervous, and he could not conceal it, as Matthew Kendrick turned to look at the front of the building, taking it all in, it seemed, with one sweeping glance which dwelt only for a minute apiece on the two big windows, and then turned to the entrance, above which hung the signs, old and new. The visitor made no comment, only nodded, and made straight for the door.
As it swung open under Richard's hand, the young man's first glance was for the general effect. He himself was looking at everything as if for the first time, intensely alive to the impression it was to make upon his judge. He found that the general effect was considerably obscured by the number of people at the counters and in the aisles, more, it seemed to him, than he had ever seen there before. His second observation was that the class of shoppers seemed particularly good, and he tried to recall the special feature of Carson's advertisement of the evening before. There were several different lines, he remembered, to which Carson had called special attention, with the assertion that the values were absolute and the quality guaranteed.
But his attention was very quickly diverted from any study of the store itself to the even more interesting and instructive study of the old man who accompanied him. He had invited an expert to look the situation over, there could be no possible doubt of that. And the expert was looking it over—there could be no doubt of that, either. As they passed down one aisle and up another, Richard could see how the eagle eyes noted one point after another, yet without any disturbing effect of searching scrutiny. Here and there Mr. Kendrick's gaze lingered a trifle longer, and more than once he came close to a counter and brought an eyeglass to bear on the goods there displayed, nodding pleasantly at the salespeople as he did so. And everywhere he went glances followed him.
It seemed to Richard that he had never realized before what a distinguished looking old man his grandfather was. He was not of more than average height; he was dressed, though scrupulously, as unobtrusively as is any quiet gentleman of his years and position; but none the less was there something about him which spoke of the man of affairs, of the leader, the organizer, the general.
Alfred Carson came hurrying out of the little office as the two Kendricks came in sight. Matthew Kendrick greeted him with distinct evidence of pleasure.
"Ah, Mr. Carson," he said, "I am very glad to see you again. I have missed you from your department. How do you find the new business? More interesting than the old, eh?"
"It is always interesting, sir," responded Carson, "to enlarge one's field of operations."
Mr. Kendrick laughed heartily at this, turning to Richard as he did so. "That's a great compliment to you, Dick," he said, "that Mr. Carson feels he has enlarged his field by coming up here to you, and leaving me."
"Don't you think it's true, grandfather?" challenged Richard boldly.
"To be sure it's true," agreed Mr. Kendrick. "But it sometimes takes a wise man to see that a swing from the centre of things to the rim is the way to swing back to the centre finally. Well, I've looked about quite a bit,—what next, Dick?"
"Won't you come into the office, sir, and ask us any questions that you like? We want your criticism and your suggestions," declared Richard. "Where's Mr. Benson, Mr. Carson? I'd like him to meet my grandfather right away. I thought we'd find him somewhere about the place before now."
"He's just come into the office," said Carson, leading the way. "He'll be mightily pleased to see Mr. Kendrick."
This prophecy proved true. Hugh Benson, who had not known of his partner's intention to bring Mr. Kendrick, Senior, to visit the store, flushed with pleasure and a little nervousness when he saw him, and gave evidence of the latter as he cleared a chair for his guest and knocked down a pile of small pasteboard boxes as he did so.
"We don't usually keep such things in here," he apologized, and sent post-haste for a boy to take the offending objects away. Then the party settled down for a talk, Richard carefully closing the door, after notifying a clerk outside to prevent interruption for so long as it should remain closed.
"Now, grandfather, talk business to us, will you?" he begged. "Tell us what you think of us, and don't spare us. That's what we want, isn't it?" And he appealed to his two associates with a look which bade them speak out.
"We certainly do, Mr. Kendrick," Hugh Benson assured the visitor eagerly. "It's our chance to have an expert opinion."
"It will be even more than that," said Alfred Carson. "It will be the opinion of the master of all experts in the business world."
"Fie, Mr. Carson," said the old man, with, however, a kind look at the young man, who, he knew, did not mean to flatter him but to speak the undeniable truth, "you must remember the old saying about praise to the face. Still, I must break that rule myself when I tell you all that I am greatly pleased with the appearance of the place, and with all that meets the eye in a brief visit."
Richard glowed with satisfaction at this, but both Benson and Carson appeared to be waiting for more. The old man looked at them and nodded.
"You have both had much more experience than this boy of mine," said he, "and you know that all has not been said when due acknowledgment has been made of the appearance of a place of business. What I want to know, gentlemen, is—does the appearance tell the absolute truth about the integrity of the business?"
Richard looked at him quickly, for with the last words his grandfather's tone had changed from mere suavity to a sudden suggestion of sternness. Instinctively he straightened in his chair, and his glance at the other two young men showed that they had quite as involuntarily straightened in theirs. As the head of the firm, Hugh Benson, after a moment's pause, answered, in a quietly firm tone which made Richard regard him with fresh respect:
"If it didn't, Mr. Kendrick, I shouldn't want to be my father's successor. He may have been a failure in business, but it was not for want of absolute integrity."
The keen eyes softened as they rested on the young man's face, and Mr. Kendrick bent his head, as if he would do honour to the memory of a father who, however unsuccessful as the world judges success, could make a son speak as this son had spoken. "I am sure that is true, Mr. Benson," he said, and paused for a moment before he went on:
"It is the foundation principle of business—that a reputation for trustworthiness can be built only on the rock of real merit. The appearance of the store must not tell one lie—not one—from front door to back—not even the shadow of a lie. Nothing must be left to the customer's discretion. If he pays so much money he must get so much value, whether he knows it or not." He stopped abruptly, waited for a little, his eyes searching the faces before him. Then he said, with a change of tone:
"Do you want to tell me something about the management of the business, gentlemen?"
"We want to do just that, Mr. Kendrick," Benson answered.
So they set it before him, he and Alfred Carson, as they had worked it out, Richard remaining silent, even when appealed to, merely saying quietly: "I'm only the crudest kind of a beginner—you fellows will have to do the talking," and so leaving it all to the others. They showed Mr. Kendrick the books of the firm, they explained to him their system of buying, of analyzing their sales that they might learn how to buy at best advantage and sell at greatest profit; of getting rid of goods quickly by attractive advertising; of all manner of details large and small, such as pertain to the conduct of a business of the character of theirs.
They grew eager, enthusiastic, as they talked, for they found their listener ready of understanding, quick of appreciation, kindly of criticism, yet so skilful at putting a finger on their weak places that they could only wonder and take earnest heed of every word he said. As Richard watched him, he found himself understanding a little Matthew Kendrick's extraordinary success. If his personality was still one to make a powerful impression on all who came in contact with him, what must it have been, Richard speculated, in his prime, in those wonderful years when he was building the great business, expanding it with a daring of conception and a rapidity of execution which had fairly taken away the breath of his contemporaries. He had introduced new methods, laid down new principles, defied old systems, and created better ones having no precedent anywhere but in his own productive brain. It might justly be said that he had virtually revolutionized the mercantile world, for when the bridges that he built were found to hold, in spite of all dire prophecy to the contrary, others had crossed them, too, and profited by his bridge building.
The three young men did their best to lead Mr. Kendrick to talk of himself, but of that he would do little. Constantly he spoke of the work of his associates, and when it became necessary to allude to himself it was always as if they had been identified with every move of his own. It was Alfred Carson who best recognized this trait of peculiar modesty in the old man, and who understood most fully how often the more impersonal "we" of his speech really stood for the "I" who had been the mainspring of all action in the growth of the great affairs he spoke of. Carson was the son of a man who had been one of the early heads of a newly created department, in the days when departments were just being tried, and he had heard many a time of the way in which Matthew Kendrick had held to his course of introducing innovations which had startled the men most closely associated with him, and had made them wonder if he were not going too far for safety or success.
"Well, well, gentlemen," said Mr. Kendrick, rising abruptly at last, "you have beguiled me into long speech. It takes me back to old days to sit and discuss a young business like this one with young men like you. It has been very interesting, and it delights me to find you so ready to take counsel, while at the same time you show a healthy belief in your own judgment. You will come along—you will come along. You will make mistakes, but you will profit by them. And you will remember always, I hope, a motto I am going to give you."
He paused and looked searchingly into each face before him: Hugh Benson's, serious and sincere; Alfred Carson's, energy and purpose showing in every line; his own boy's, Richard's, keen interest and a certain proud wonder looking out of his fine eyes as he watched the old man who seemed to him to-day, somehow, almost a stranger in his unwontedly aroused speech.
"The most important thing a business can do," said Matthew Kendrick slowly, "is to make men of those who make the business."
He let the words sink in. He saw, after an instant, the response in each face, and he nodded, satisfied. He held out his hand to each in turn, including his grandson, and received three hearty grips of gratitude and understanding.
As he drove away with Richard his eyes were bright under their heavy brows. It had done him good, this visit to the place where his thoughts had often been of late, and he was pleased with the way Richard had borne himself throughout the interview. He could not have asked better of the heir to the Kendrick millions than the unassuming and yet quietly assured manner Richard had shown. It had a certain quality, the old man proudly considered, which was lacking in that of both Benson and Carson, fine fellows though they were, and well-mannered in every way. It reminded Matthew Kendrick of the boy's own father, who had been a man among men, and a gentleman besides.
"Grandfather, we shall pass Mr. Rufus Gray's farm in a minute. Don't you want to stop and see them?"
"Rufus Gray?" questioned Mr. Kendrick. "The people we entertained at Christmas? I should like to stop, if it will not delay us too long. It seems a colder air than it did this morning."
"There's a bit of wind, and it's usually colder, facing this way. If you prefer, after the call, I'll take you back to the station and run down alone."
"We'll see. Is this the place we're coming to? A pleasant old place enough, and it looks like the right home for such a pair," commented Mr. Kendrick, gazing interestedly ahead as the car swung in at a stone gateway, and followed a winding roadway toward a low-lying, hospitable looking white house, with long porches beyond masses of bare shrubbery.
It seemed that the welcoming look of the house was justified in the attitude of its inmates, for the car had but stopped when the door flew open, and Rufus Gray, his face beaming, bade them enter. Inside, his wife came forward with her well-remembered sunny smile, and in a trice Matthew Kendrick and his grandson found themselves sitting in front of a blazing fire upon a wide hearth, receiving every evidence that their presence brought delight.
Richard looked on with inward amusement and satisfaction at the unwonted sight of his grandfather partaking of a cup of steaming coffee rich with country cream, and eating with the appetite of a boy a huge, sugar-coated doughnut which his hostess assured him could not possibly hurt him.
"They're the real old-fashioned kind, Mr. Kendrick," said she. "Raised like bread, you know, and fried in lard we make ourselves in a way I have so that not a bit of grease gets inside. My husband thinks they're the only fit food to go with coffee."
"They are the most delicious food I ever ate, certainly, Madam Gray, and I find myself agreeing with him, now that I taste them," declared Mr. Kendrick, and Richard, disposing with zest of a particularly huge, light specimen of Mrs. Gray's art, seconded his grandfather's appreciation.
They made a long call, Mr. Kendrick appearing to enjoy himself as Richard could not remember seeing him do before. He and Mr. Gray found many subjects to discuss with mutual interest, and the nodding of the two heads in assent at frequent intervals proved how well they found themselves agreeing.
Richard, as at the time of the Grays' brief visit at his own home, devoted himself to the lady whom he always thought of as "Aunt Ruth," secretly dwelling on the hope that he might some day acquire the right to call her by that pleasant title. He led her, by artful circumlocutions, always tending toward one object, to speak of her nieces and nephews, and when he succeeded in drawing from her certain all too meagre news of Roberta, he exulted in his ardent soul, though he did his best not to betray himself.
"Maybe," said she, quite suddenly, "you'd enjoy looking at the family album. Robby and Ruth always get it out when they come here—they like to see their father and mother the way they used to look. There's some of themselves, too, though the photographs folks have now are too big to go in an old-fashioned album like this, and the ones they've sent me lately aren't in here."
Never did a modern young man accept so eagerly the chance to scan the collection of curious old likenesses such as is found between the covers of the now despised "album" of the days of their grandfathers. Richard turned the pages eagerly, scanning them for faces he knew, and discovered much satisfaction in one charming picture of Roberta's mother at eighteen, because of its suggestion of the daughter.
"Eleanor was the beauty of the family, and is yet, I always say," asserted Aunt Ruth. "Robby's like her, they all think, but she can't hold a candle to her mother. She's got more spirit in her face, maybe, but her features aren't equal to Eleanor's."
Richard did not venture to disagree with this opinion, but he privately considered that, enchanting as was the face of Mrs. Robert Gray at eighteen, that of her daughter Roberta, at twenty-four, dangerously rivalled it.
"I could tell better about the likeness if I saw a late picture of Miss Roberta," he observed, his eyes and mouth grave, but his voice expectant. Aunt Ruth promptly took the suggestion, and limping daintily away, returned after a minute with a framed photograph of Roberta and Ruth, taken by one of those masters of the art who understand how to bring out the values of the human face, yet to leave provocative shadows which make for mystery and charm. Richard received it with a respectful hand, and then had much ado to keep from showing how the sight of her pictured face made his heart throb.
When the two visitors rose to go Aunt Ruth put in a plea for their remaining overnight.
"It's turned colder since you came up this morning, Mr. Kendrick," said she. "Why not stay with us and go back in the morning? We'd be so pleased to entertain you, and we've plenty of room—too much room for us two old folks, now the children are all married and gone."
To Richard's surprise his grandfather did not immediately decline. He looked at Aunt Ruth, her rosy, smiling face beaming with hospitality, then he glanced at Richard.
"Do stay," urged Uncle Rufus. "Remember how you took us in at midnight, and what a good time you gave us the two days we stayed? It would make us mighty happy to have you sleep under our roof, you and your grandson both, if he'll stay, too."
"I confess I should like to sleep under this roof," admitted Matthew Kendrick. "It reminds me of my father's old home. It's very good of you, Madam Gray, to ask us, and I believe I shall remain. As to Richard—"
"I'd like nothing better," declared that young man promptly.
So it was settled. Richard drove back to the store and gathered together various articles for his own and his grandfather's use, and returned to the Gray fireside. The long and pleasant evening which followed the hearty country supper gave him one more new experience in the long list of them he was acquiring. Somehow he had seldom been happier than when he followed his hostess into the comfortable room upstairs she assigned him, opening from that she had given the elder man. Cheerful fires burned in old-fashioned, open-hearthed Franklin stoves, in both rooms, and the atmosphere was fragrant with the mingled breath of crackling apple-wood, and lavender from the fine old linen with which both beds had been freshly made.
"Sleep well, my dear friends," said Aunt Ruth, in her quaintly friendly way, as she bade her guests good-night and shook hands with them, receiving warm responses.
"One must find sweet repose under your roof," said Matthew Kendrick, and Richard, attending his hostess to the door, murmured, "You look as if you'd put two small boys to bed and tucked them in!" at which Aunt Ruth laughed with pleasure, nodding at him over her shoulder as she went away.
Presently, as Matthew Kendrick lay down in the soft bed, his face toward the glow of his fire that he might watch it, Richard knocked and came in from his own room and, crossing to the bed, stood leaning on the foot-board.
"Too sleepy to talk, grandfather?" he asked.
"Not at all, my boy," responded the old man, his heart stirring in his breast at this unwonted approach at an hour when the two were usually far apart. Never that he could remember had Richard come into his room after he had retired.
"I wanted to tell you," said the young man, speaking very gently, "that you've been awfully kind, and have done us all a lot of good to-day. And you've done me most of all."
"Why, that's pleasant news, Dick," answered old Matthew Kendrick, his eyes fixed on the shadowy outlines of the face at the foot of the bed. "Sit down and tell me about it."
So Richard sat down, and the two had such a talk as they had had never before in their lives—a long, intimate talk, with the barriers down—the barriers which both felt now never should have existed. Lying there in the soft bed of Aunt Ruth's best feathers, with the odour of her lavender in his nostrils, and the sound of the voice he loved in his ears, the old man drank in the delight of his grandson's confidence, and the wonder of something new—the consciousness of Richard's real affection, and his heart beat with slow, heavy throbs of joy, such as he had never expected to feel again in this world.
"Altogether," said Richard, rising reluctantly at last, as the tall old clock on the landing near-by slowly boomed out the hour of midnight, "it's been a great day for me. I'd been looking forward with quite a bit of dread to bringing you up, I knew you'd see so plainly wherever we were lacking; but you were so splendidly kind about it—"
"And why shouldn't I be kind, Dick?" spoke his grandfather eagerly. "What have I in the world to interest me as you and your affairs interest me? Can any possible stroke of fortune seem so great to me as your development into a manhood of accomplishment? And when it is in the very world I know so well and have so near my heart—"
Richard interrupted him, not realizing that he was doing so, but full of longing to make all still further clear between them. "Grandfather, I want to make a confession. This world of yours—I didn't want to enter it."
"I know you didn't, Dick. And I know why. But you are getting over that, aren't you? You are beginning to realize that it isn't what a man does, but the way he does it, that matters."
"Yes," said Richard slowly. "Yes, I'm beginning to realize that. And do you want to know what made me realize it to-day, as never before?"
The old man waited.
"It was the sight of you, sir—and—the recognition of the power you have been all your life;—and the—sudden appreciation of the"—he stumbled a little, but he brought the words out forcefully at the end—"of the very great gentleman you are!"
He could not see the hot tears spring into the old eyes which had not known such a sign of emotion for many years. But he could feel the throb in the low voice which answered him after a moment.
"I may not deserve that, Dick, but—it touches me, coming from you."
When Richard had gone back to his own room, Matthew Kendrick lay for a long time, wide awake, too happy to sleep. In the next room his grandson, before he slept, had formulated one more new idea:
"There's something in the association with people like these that makes a fellow feel like being absolutely honest with them, with everybody—most of all with himself. What is it?"
And pondering this, he was lost in the world of dreams.
"By the way, Rob, I saw Rich Kendrick to-day." Louis Gray detained his sister Roberta on the stairs as they stopped to exchange greetings on a certain evening in March. "It struck me suddenly that I hadn't seen him for a blue moon, and I asked him why he didn't come round when he was in town. He said he was sticking tight to that new business of his up in Eastman, but he admitted he was to be here over Sunday. I invited him round to-night, but to my surprise he wouldn't come. Said he had another engagement, of course—thanked me fervently and all that—but there was no getting him. It made me a bit suspicious of you, Bobby."
"I can't imagine why." But, in spite of herself, Roberta coloured. "He came here when he was helping Uncle Calvin. There's no reason for his coming now."
Her brother regarded her with the observing eye which sisters find it difficult to evade. "He would have taken a job as nursemaid for Rosy, if it would have given him a chance to go in and out of this old house, I imagine. Rosy stuck to it, it was his infatuation for the home and the members thereof, particularly Gordon and Dorothy. He undoubtedly was struck with them—it would have been a hard heart that wasn't touched by the sight of the boy—but if it was the kiddies he wanted, why didn't he keep coming? Steve and Rosy would have welcomed him."
"You had better ask him his reasons, next time you see him," Roberta suggested, and escaped.
It was two months since she had seen Richard Kendrick. He seemed never so much as to pass the house, although it stood directly on his course when he drove back and forth from Eastman in his car. She wondered if he really did make a detour each time, to avoid the very chance of meeting her. It was impossible not to think of him, rather disturbingly often, and to wonder how he was getting on.
The month of March in the year of this tale was on the whole an extraordinarily mild and springlike piece of substitution for the rigorous, wind-swept season it should by all rights have been. On one of its most beguiling days Roberta Gray was walking home from Miss Copeland's school. Usually she came by way of the broad avenue which led straight home. To-day, out of sheer unwillingness to reach that home and end the walk, she took a quite different course. This led her up a somewhat similar street, parallel to her own but several blocks beyond, a street of more than ordinary attractiveness in that it was less of a thoroughfare than any other of equal beauty in the residential portion of the city.
She was walking slowly, drawing in the balmy air and noting with delight the beds of crocuses which were beginning to show here and there on lawns and beside paths, when a peculiar sound far up the avenue caught her ear. She recognized it instantly, for she had heard it often and she had never heard another quite like it. It was the warning song of a coming motor-car and it was of unusual and striking musical quality. So Roberta knew, even before she caught sight of the long, low, powerful car which had stood many times before her own door during certain weeks of the last year, that she was about to meet for the first time in two months the person upon whom she had put a ban.
Would he see her? He could hardly help it, for there was not another pedestrian in sight upon the whole length of the block, and the March sunshine was full upon her. As the car came on the girl who walked sedately to meet it found that her pulses had somehow curiously accelerated. So this was the route he took, not to go by her home.
Did he see her? Evidently as far away as half a block, for at that distance his motor-cap was suddenly pulled off, and it was with bared head that he passed her. At the moment the car was certainly not running as fast as it had been doing twenty rods back; it went by at a pace moderate enough to show the pair to each other with distinctness. Roberta saw clearly Richard Kendrick's intent eyes upon her, saw the flash of his smile and the grace of his bow, and saw—as if written upon the blue spring sky—the word he had left with her, "Midsummer." If he had shouted it at her as he passed, it could not have challenged her more definitely.
He was obeying her literally—more literally than she could have demanded. Not to slow down, come to a standstill beside her, exchange at least a few words of greeting—this was indeed a strict interpretation of her edict. Evidently he meant to play the game rigorously. Still, he had been a compellingly attractive figure as he passed; that instant's glimpse of him was likely to remain with her quite as long as a more protracted interview. Did he guess that?
"I wonder how I looked?" was her first thought as she walked on—a purely feminine one, it must be admitted. When she reached home she glanced at herself in the hall mirror on her way upstairs—a thing she seldom took the trouble to do.
A figure got hastily to its feet and came out into the hall to meet her as she passed the door of the reception-room. "Miss Roberta!" said an eager voice.
"Why, Mr. Westcott! I didn't know you were in town!"
"I didn't intend to be until next month, as you knew. But this wonderful weather was too much for me."
He held her hand and looked down into her face from his tall height. He told her what he thought of her appearance—in detail with his eyes, in modified form with his lips.
"In my old school clothes?" laughed Roberta. "How draggy winter things seem the first warm days. This velvet hat weighs like lead on my head to-day." She took it off. "I'll run up and make myself presentable," said she.
"Please don't. You're exactly right as you are. And—I want you to go for a walk if you're not too tired. The road that leads out by the West Wood marshes—it will be sheer spring out there to-day. I want to share it with you."
So Roberta put on her hat again and went to walk with Forbes Westcott out the road that led by the West Wood marshes. There was not a more romantic road to be found in a long way.
When they were well out into the country he began to press a question which she had heard before, and to which he had had as yet no answer.
"Still undecided?" said he, with a very sober face. "You can't make up your mind as to my qualifications?"
"Your qualifications are undoubted," said she, with a face as sober as his. "They are more than any girl could ask. But I—how can I know? I care so much for you—as a friend. Why can't we keep on being just good friends and let things develop naturally?"
"If I thought they would ever develop the way I want them," he said earnestly, "I would wait patiently a great while longer. But I don't seem to be making any progress. In fact, I seem to have gone backward a bit in your good graces. Since I saw that young prince of shopkeepers in your company over at Eastman, I've been wondering—"
"Prince of shopkeepers! What an extraordinary characterization! I thought he was a most amateurish shopkeeper. He didn't even know the name of his own batiste, much less where it was kept."
"He knew how to skate and to take you along with him. I beg your pardon! But ever since that night I've been experiencing a most disconcerting sense of jealousy whenever I think of that young man. He was such a magnificent figure there in the firelight; he made me feel as old as the Pyramids. And when you two were gone so long and came back with such an odd look, both of you—oh, I beg your pardon again! This is most unworthy of me, I know. But—set me straight if you can! Have you seen much of him since that night?"
"Absolutely nothing," said Roberta quickly, with a sense of great relief. "To-day he passed me in his car, on my way home from school, over on Egerton Avenue, and didn't even stop."
He scanned her face closely. "And you are not even interested in him?"
"Mr. Forbes Westcott," said Roberta desperately, "I have told you often and often that I'm not interested in any man except as one or two are my very good friends. Why can't all girls be allowed to live along in peace and comfort until they are at least thirty years old? You didn't have anybody besieging you to marry before you were thirty. If anybody had you'd have said 'No' quickly enough. You had that much of your life comfortably to yourself."
He bit his lip, but he was obliged to laugh. His thin, keen face was more attractive when he laughed, but there was an odd, tense expression on it which did not leave it even then.
"I can see you are still hopeless," he owned. "But so long as you are hopeless for other men I can endure it, I suppose. I really meant not to speak again for a long time, as I promised you. But the thought of that embryo plutocrat making after you, as he has after so many girls—"
"How many girls, I wonder?" queried Roberta quite carelessly. "Do you happen to know? Has his fame spread so far?"
"I know nothing about him, of course, except that he's a gay young spendthrift. It goes without saying that he's made love to every pretty face, for that kind invariably do."
"If it goes without saying, why say it?—particularly as you don't know it. I dare say he has—what serious harm? I presume it's quite as likely they've run after him. I'm sure it's a matter of no concern to me, for I know him very little and am likely to know him much less now that he doesn't come to work with Uncle Calvin any more. Let's go back, Mr. Westcott. I came out to look for pussy-willows, not for Robby-will-you's!"
With which piece of audacity she dismissed the subject. It certainly was not a subject which harmonized well with that of Midsummer Day, and the thought of Midsummer Day, quickened into active life by the unexpected sight of the person who had made a certain preposterous prophecy concerning it, was a thought which was refusing to down.
"Hi!—Mr. Kendrick!—I say, Mr. Kendrick! Wait a minute!"
The car, about to leave the curb in front of one of Kendrick & Company's great city stores, halted. Its driver turned to see young Ted Gray tearing across the sidewalk in hot pursuit.
"Well, well—glad to see you, Ted, boy. Jump in and I'll take you along."
Ted jumped in. He gave Richard Kendrick's welcoming hand a hard squeeze. "I haven't seen you for an awful while," said he reproachfully. "Aren't you ever coming to our house any more?"
"I hope so, Ted. But, you see," explained Richard carefully, "I'm a man of business now and I can't have much time for calls. I'm in Eastman most of the time. How are you, Ted? Tell me all about it. Can you go for a spin with me? I had to come into town in a hurry, but there's no great hurry about getting back. I'll take you out into the country and show you the prettiest lot of apple trees in full bloom you ever saw in May."
"I'd like to first-rate, but could you take me home first? I have to let mother know where I am after school."
"All right." And away they flew. But Richard turned off the avenue three blocks below the corner upon which stood Ted's home and ran up the street behind it. "Run in the back way, will you, Ted?" he requested. "I want to do a bit of work on the car while you're in."
So while Ted dashed up through the garden to the back of the house Richard got out and unscrewed a nut or two, which he screwed again into place without having accomplished anything visible to the eye, and was replacing his wrench when the boy returned.
"This is jolly," Ted declared. "I'll bet Rob envies me. This is her Wednesday off from teaching, and she was just going for a walk. She wanted me to go with her, but of course she let me go with you instead. I—I suppose I could ride on the running board and let you take her if you want to," he proposed with some reluctance.
"I'd like nothing better, but she wouldn't go."
"Maybe not. Perhaps Mr. Westcott is coming for her. They walk a lot together."
"I thought Mr. Westcott practised law with consuming zeal."
"With what? Anyhow, he's here a lot this spring. About every Wednesday, I think. I say, this is a bully car! If I were Rob I'd a lot rather ride with you than go walking with old Westcott—especially when it's so warm."
"I'm afraid," said Richard soberly, "that walking in the woods in May has its advantages over bowling along the main highway in any kind of a car."
Nevertheless he managed to make the drive a fascinating experience to Ted and a diverting one to himself. And on the way home they stopped at the West Wood marshes to gather a great bunch of trilliums as big as Ted's head.
"I'll take 'em to Rob," said her younger brother. "She likes 'em better than any spring flower."
"Take my bunch to Mrs. Stephen Gray then. And be sure you don't get them mixed."
"What if I did? They're exactly the same size." Ted held up the two nosegays side by side as the car sped on toward home.
"I know, but it's of the greatest importance that you keep them straight. That left-hand one is yours; be sure and remember that."
Ted looked piercingly at his friend, but Richard's face was perfectly grave.
"Must be you don't like Rob, if you're so afraid your flowers will get to her," he reflected. "Or else you think so much of Rosy you can't bear to let anybody else have the flowers you picked for her. I'll have to tell Steve that."
"Do, by all means. Mere words could never express my admiration for Mrs. Stephen."
"She is pretty nice," agreed Ted. "I like her myself. But she isn't in it with Rob. Why, Rosy's afraid of lots of things, regularly afraid, you know, so Steve has to laugh her out of them. But Rob—she isn't afraid of a thing in the world."
"One?" Ted pricked up his ears. "What's that? I'll bet she isn't really afraid of it—just shamming. She does that sometimes. What is it? Tell me, and I'll tell you if she's shamming."
"I'd give a good deal to know, but I'm afraid I can't tell you what it is."
"Why not? If she isn't really afraid of it she won't mind my knowing. And if she is maybe I can laugh her out of it, the way Steve does Rosy."
"I don't believe you're competent to treat the case, Ted. It's not a thing to be laughed out of, you see. The thing for you to remember is which bunch of trilliums you are to give Mrs. Stephen Gray from me."
"This one." Ted waved his left arm.
"Not a bit of it. The left one is yours."
"No, because mine was a little the biggest, and you see this right one is."
"You are mistaken," Richard assured him positively. "You give Mrs. Stephen the right one, and I'll take the consequences."
"Did yours have a red one in?"
"Has that right one?"
"No, the left one has. I remember seeing you pick it."
"But afterward I threw it out. You picked one and left it in. The right is mine."
"You've got me all mixed up," vowed Ted discontentedly, at which his companion laughed, delight in his eye. The left-hand bunch was unquestionably his own, but if he could only convince Ted of the contrary he should at least have the satisfaction of knowing that the flowers he had plucked had reached his lady, though they would have no significance to her. When the lad jumped out of the car at his own rear gate he had agreed that the bunch with the one deep red trillium was to go to Roberta.
Ted turned to wave both white clusters at his friend as the car went on, then he proceeded straight to his sister's room. Finding her absent, he laid one great white-and-green mass in a heap upon her bed and went his way with the other to Mrs. Stephen's room. Here he found both Roberta and Rosamond playing with little Gordon and Dorothy, whom their nurse had just brought in from an airing.
"Here's some trilliums for you, Rosy," announced Ted. "Mr. Kendrick sent 'em to you. I left yours on your bed, Rob. I picked yours; at least I think I did. He was awfully particular that his went to Rosy, but we got sort of mixed up about which picked which, so I can't be sure. I don't see any use of making such a fuss about a lot of trilliums, anyhow."
Roberta and Rosamond looked at each other. "I think you are decidedly mixed, Ted," said Rosamond. "It was Rob Mr. Kendrick meant to send his to."
Ted shook his head positively. "No, it wasn't. He said something about you that I told him I was going to tell Steve, only—I don't know as I can remember it. Something about his admiring you a whole lot."
"Delightful! And he didn't say anything about Rob?"
"Not very much. Said she was afraid of something. I said she wasn't afraid of anything, and he said she was—of one thing. I tried to make him say what it was, because I knew he was all off about that, but he wouldn't tell."
"Evidently you and Mr. Kendrick talked a good deal of nonsense," was Roberta's comment, on her way from the room.
She found the mass of green and white upon her bed and stood contemplating it for a moment. The one deep red trillium glowed richly against its snowy brethren, and she picked it out and examined it thoughtfully, as if she expected it to tell her whereof Richard Kendrick thought she was afraid. But as it vouchsafed no information she gathered up the whole mass and disposed it in a big crystal bowl which she set upon a small table by an open window.
"If I thought that really was the bunch he picked," said she to herself, "I should consider he had broken his promise and I should feel obliged to throw it away. Perhaps I'd better do it anyhow. Yet—it seems a pity to throw away such a beautiful bowlful of white and green, and—very likely they were of Ted's picking after all. But I don't like that one red one against all the white."
She laid fingers upon it to draw it out. But she did not draw it out. "I wonder if that represents the one thing I'm afraid of?" she considered whimsically. "What does his majesty mean—himself? Or—myself? Or—of—of—Yes, I suppose that's it! Am I afraid of it?"