She stood staring down at the one deep red flower, the biggest, finest bloom of them all. It really did not belong there with the others in their cool, chaste whiteness. Quite suddenly she drew it out. She made the motion of throwing it out the window, but it seemed to cling to her fingers.
"Poor little flower," said she softly, "why should you have to go? Perhaps you're sorry because you're not white like the rest. But you can't help it; you were made that way."
If Richard Kendrick could have seen her standing there, staring down at the flower he had picked, he would have found it harder than ever to go on his appointed course. For this was what she was thinking:
"I ought—I ought—to like best the white flowers of intellect—and ability—and training—and every sort of fitness. I try and try to like them best. But, oh!—they are so white—compared with this red, red one. I like the white ones; they are pure and cool and beautiful. But—the red one is warm, warm! Oh, I don't know—I don't know. And how am I going to know? Tell me that, red flower. Did he pick you? Shall I keep you—on the doubt? Well—but not where you will show. Yes, I'll keep you, but away down in the middle, where no one will see you, and where you won't distract my attention from the beautiful white flowers that are so different from you."
She bent over the bowlful of snowy spring blossoms, drew them apart, and sunk the red flower deep among them, drawing them together again so that not a hint of their alien brother should show against their whiteness.
"There," said she, turning away with a little laugh, but speaking over her shoulder, "you ought to be satisfied with that. That's certainly much better than being thrown out of the window, to wilt in the sun!"
THE NAILING OF A FLAG
"Well—well—well!" drawled a voice at Richard Kendrick's elbow. "How are you, old man? Haven't seen you since before the days of Noah! Off to that country shop of yours? I say, take me along, will you? Time hangs heavy on my hands just now, and I want to see you anyhow, about a plan of mine."
"Hop in, Lorimer. Mighty glad to see you. Want to go all the way to Eastman? That's fine! This is great weather, eh?"
Belden Lorimer hopped in, if that word may be used to express his eager acceptance rather than the alacrity of his movements, for he was accustomed to act with as much deliberation as he spoke. He was one of Richard's college friends, also one of his late intimate companions at clubs and in social affairs. Lorimer possessed as much money in his own right as Richard himself, though his expectations were hardly as great.
"To tell the truth," said Lorimer, when the car had left the city and was bowling along the main travelled highway "up the State," "I wanted to see you as much as anything to get a good look at you. Fellows say you've changed. Say you have that 'captain-of-industry' expression now. Say you've acquired that broad brow—alert eye—stern mouth—dominant chin—and so forth, that goes with indomitable determination to 'get there.' To be sure, I'd have thought you'd arrived, or your family before you, but they say you've started out to arrive some more. It's a wonderful example for a chap like me—fellows say. Think so myself. Mind imparting—"
Richard broke in on Lorimer's drawl. It was rather an engaging drawl, by the way, and he had always enjoyed hearing it, but it struck upon his ears now with a certain futility. In a world of pressing affairs why should a man cultivate a tone like that? But he liked Lorimer too much to mind how he talked.
"I'm delighted if I've acquired that expression," said he, letting out the car another notch, although it was already in swift flight. "It's been a lot of trouble. I've had to practise before a mirror a good deal. It was the chin bothered me most. It sticks out pretty well, but not as far as my grandfather's. Could you advise any method of—"
"What I want to know is," proceeded Lorimer calmly, "how you came to go into it. Understand you wanted to help fellow out of the ditch—good old Benson—most worthy. Couldn't help him out without getting in yourself? But going to get out soon as possible, of course? Unthinkable for Rich Kendrick to be a country shopkeeper!"
"Unthinkable, is it? Wait till you see the shop. It's the most fun I ever had. Get out? Not by a long shot. I'm in for keeps."
"Not you. With the Kendrick establishments waiting for you to come into your own? Which will mean, in your case, becoming the nominal head of a great system, while it continues to be run for you, as now, by a lot of trained heads under salary—big salary."
"Great idea of my future you have, Lorry, haven't you? Well, I can't wonder. I've been doing my best for all the years of my life to implant that idea in your mind. But, what about you? What are you at, yourself? You said you had a plan."
"He asks what I'm 'at,'" remarked Belden Lorimer to the rural landscape through which the car was passing. "Ever know me to be 'at' anything? It's as much as I can do to support life until I can be off on my next little travel-plan. It's me for a leisurely cruise around the world, in the governor's little old boat—the Ariel—painted up within an inch of her life, brass all shining, lockers filled, a first-class cook engaged, and a brand-new skipper and crew—picked men. Sounds pretty good to me. How about you? Shop keeping in it with that, me lord?"
His usually languid glance was sharp, as he eyed his friend.
"Jove!" ejaculated Richard Kendrick, under his breath.
"I thought so. 'Jove!' it is, too—and also Jupiter! You've always said you'd be ready when I was. Well, I'm ready."
Richard was silent for a long minute, while his friend waited confidently. Then, "Good luck to you, old Lorry," he said. "It's mighty fine of you to remember our ancient vow to do that trick some day. And I'd like to go—you know that. But—I've a previous engagement."
"Not with that fool store up in the backwoods? Can't make me believe that, you know."
Richard's face was a study.
"Believe it or not, it's a fact. That store is the joint property of Benson & Company. I'm the Company. I can't desert my partner just as we're getting the ground under our feet."
"Well—I'll—be—hanged," drawled Lorimer, more heavily than ever, as was his custom when opposed, "if I see it. You go and help a fellow out with capital and set him on his feet. You save his pride, I suppose, by making yourself a partner. Fine, sporty thing to do. But you've done it. You've contributed the capital. Can't reasonably suppose you contribute anything else. If you don't mind my saying it, your—previous—training—"
"Doesn't make me indispensable to the success of the business? Hardly, as yet. But for the very reason that I lack training, I've got to stay and get it."
"Take lessons in shopkeeping from Hugh Benson?"
"Exactly. And from Alf Carson. He's our manager."
"Don't know him. But from the way you allude to him I judge he has the details at his fingers-ends. That's all right. Leave—him—on—the—job."
"I will—and stay myself."
Richard's eyes were straight ahead, as the eyes of a man must be whose powerful car is running at high speed along a none too smoothly surfaced portion of state road. Therefore the glances of the two young men could not meet. But Lorimer's eyes could silently scan the well-cut profile presented to his view against the green of the fields beyond.
"Never observed," said he, with a peculiar inflection, "just how—rock-like—that chin of yours is, Rich. Reminds me of your grandfather's, for fair."
"Glad to hear it."
"You know," pursued Lorimer presently, "you gave me your promise, once, that you'd be with me on this cruise, whenever it came off. That's where the chin ought to come in. Man of your word, you know, and all that."
"I'm mighty sorry, my dear fellow. Let's not talk about it."
And clearly he was sorry. It had been a pleasant plan, and he had not forgotten the circumstances of the laughing yet serious pledge the two had given each other one evening less than two years ago.
They kept on their way with a change of conversation, and at the rate of speed which Richard maintained were running into Eastman before they were half done with asking each other questions concerning the months during which they had seldom met.
"This the busy mart?" queried Lorimer, as the car came to a standstill before the corner store. "Well, beside Kendrick & Company's massive edifices of stone and marble—"
"Luckily, it's not beside them," retorted Richard, maintaining his good humour. "Will you come in?"
"Thanks, I will. That's what I came for. Curiosity leads me to want to view you behind the—No, no, of course it's behind the office glass partition that I'll view you, my boy. I want to hear Rich Kendrick talking business—with a big B."
"I'll talk business to you, if you don't let up," declared his friend. "You've got to be cured of the idea that this is some kind of a joke, Lorry. Will you be kind enough to take me seriously?"
"Find—that—impossible," drawled Lorimer, under his breath, as he followed Richard into the store.
But once there, of course, his manner changed to the most courteous of which he was master. He was taken to the office and there shook hands with Hugh Benson with cordiality, having known him at college as a man who commanded respect for high scholarship and modest but assured manners, though of a quite different class of comradeship from his own. He talked pleasantly with Alfred Carson, and listened with evident interest to a business discussion between Richard and his associates, in the course of which he discovered that however much or little Richard had learned, he could speak intelligently concerning the matters then in hand. He went to lunch with Richard and Hugh Benson at a hotel, and listened again, for a decision was to be made which called for haste, and no time could be lost in the consideration of it.
He spent the afternoon driving Richard's car on up the state, returning in time to pick up his friend at the appointed hour, late in the afternoon, at which they were to start back to the city. Up to the last moment of their departure business still had the upper hand, and it was not until Benson and Kendrick parted at the curb that it ended for the day, as far as Richard's part in it was concerned.
"Six hours you've been at it," remarked Lorimer, as the car swung away under Richard's hand. "It makes me fatigued all over to contemplate such zeal."
"Tell that to the men who really work. I'm getting off easy, to cut and run at the end of six hours."
"Rich—" began his friend, then he paused. "By the Lord Harry, I'd like to know what's got you. I can't make you and the old Rich fit together at all. You and your books—you and your music—and your pictures—your polo—your 'wine, women, and song'—"
"Take that last back," commanded Richard Kendrick, with sudden heat. "You know I've never gone in for that sort of thing, except as all our old crowd went in together. Personally, I haven't cared for it, and you know it. It's travel and adventure I've cared for—"
"And that you're throwing over now for a country shop."
"That I'm throwing over now to learn the ABC in the training school of responsibility for the big load that's to come on my shoulders. I've been asleep all these years. Thank Heaven I've waked up in time. It's no merit of mine—"
"Mind telling me whose it is, then?"
"I should mind, very much—if you'll excuse me."
"Oh—beg pardon," drawled Lorimer.
Silence followed for a brief space, broken by Richard's voice, in its old, genial tone.
"Tell me more about the cruise. It's great that you can have your father's yacht. I thought he always used it through the summer."
"He's gone daffy on monoplanes—absolutely daffy. Can't see anything else."
"I don't blame him. I might have gone in for aviation myself, if I hadn't got this bigger game on my hands."
"Bigger—there you go again! Well, every man to his taste. The governor's lost interest in the Ariel—let me have her without a reservation as to time limit. Don't care for flying myself. Necessary to sit up. Like to lie on my back too well for that."
"You do yourself injustice."
"Now, now—don't preach. I've been expecting it."
"You needn't. I'm too busy with my own case to attend to yours."
"Lucky for me. I feel you'd be a zealous preacher if you ever got started."
"What route do you expect to take?" pursued Richard, steering away from dangerous ground.
Lorimer outlined it, in his most languid manner. One would have thought he had little real interest in his plan, after all.
"It's great! You'll have the time of your life!"
"I might have had."
"You will have—you can't help it."
"Not without the man I want in the bunk next mine," said Belden Lorimer, gazing through half-shut eyes at nothing in particular.
Richard experienced the severest pang of regret he had yet known.
"If that's true, old Lorry," said he slowly, "I'm sorrier than I can tell you."
"Then—come along!" Lorimer looked waked up at last. He laid a persuasive hand on Richard's arm.
There was a moment of tensity. Then:
"If I should do it," said Richard, regarding steadily a dog in the road some hundred yards ahead, "would you feel any respect whatever for me?"
"Dead loads of it, I assure you."
"Sure of that?"
"Be honest. Would you?"
"You promised me first," said Lorimer.
"I know I did. Such idle promises to play don't count when real life asks for work—it's no good reminding me of that promise. Answer me straight, now, Lorry—on your honour. If I should give in and go with you, you'd rejoice for a little, perhaps. Then, some day, when you and I were lying on deck, you'd look at me and think of me—against your will—I don't say it wouldn't be against your will—you'd think of me as a quitter. And you wouldn't like me quite as well as you do now. Eh? Be honest."
Lorimer was silent for a minute. Then, to Richard's surprise, he gave an assenting grunt, and followed it up with a reluctant, "Hang it all, I suppose you're right. But I'm badly disappointed, just the same. We'll let that go."
And let it go they did, parting, when they reached town, with the friendliest of grips, and a new, if not wholly comprehended, interest between them. As for Richard, he felt, somehow, as if he had nailed his flag to the mast!
IN THE MORNING
"By George, Carson, what do you think's happened now?"
Richard Kendrick had come into the store's little office like a thunderbolt.
"Well, Mr. Kendrick?"
"Benson's down with typhoid. Came back with it from the trip to Chicago. What do you think of that?"
"I thought he was looking a little seedy before he went. Well, well, that's too bad. Right in the May trade, too. Is he pretty sick?"
"So the doctor says. He's been keeping up on that trip when he ought to have been in bed. He's in bed now, all right. I took him in with a nurse to the City Hospital on the 10:40 Limited; stretcher in the baggage-car."
"Don't see where he got typhoid around here at this time of year," mused Carson.
"Nobody sees, but that doesn't matter. He has it, and it's up to us to pull him through—and to get along without him."
They sat down to talk it over. While they were at it the telephone came into the discussion with a summons of Richard to a long-distance connection. To his amazement, when communication was established between himself and his distant interlocutor, clear and vibrant came to him over the wire a voice he had dreamed of but had not heard for four months:
"Yes. Is it—it isn't—"
"This is Miss Gray. Mr. Kendrick, your grandfather wants you very much, at our home. He has had an accident."
"An accident? What sort of an accident? Is he much hurt, Miss Gray?"
"We can't tell yet. He fell down the porch steps; he had been calling on Uncle Calvin. He—is quite helpless, but the doctor thinks there are no bones broken. Doctor Thomas wouldn't allow Mr. Kendrick to be moved, so we have him here with a nurse. He is very anxious to see you."
"I'll be there as soon as I can get there in the car. I think I can make it quicker than by train at this hour. Thank you for calling me, Miss Gray. Please—give my love to grandfather and tell him I'm coming."
"I will, Mr. Kendrick. I—we are all—so sorry. Good-bye."
Richard turned back to Carson with an anxious face. The manager was on his feet, concern in his manner.
"Something happened to old Mr. Kendrick, Mr. Richard?"
"A fall—can't move—wants me right away. It never rains but it pours, Carson—even in May. I thought Benson's illness was the worst thing that could happen to us, but this is worse yet. I'll have to leave everything to you to settle while I run down to the old gentleman. A fall, Carson—isn't that likely to be pretty serious at his age?"
"Depends on what caused it, I should say," Carson answered cautiously. "If it was any kind of shock—"
"Oh—it can't be that!" Richard Kendrick's voice showed his alarm at the thought. "Grandfather's been such an active old chap—no superfluous fat—he's not at all a high liver—takes his cold plunge just as he always has. It can't be that! But I'm off to see. Good-bye, Carson. I'll 'phone you when I know the situation. Meanwhile—wish grandfather safely out of it, will you?"
"Of course I will; I think a great deal of Mr. Kendrick. Good-bye—and don't worry about things here." Carson wrung his employer's hand, then went out with him to the curb, where the car stood, and saw him off. "He really cares," he was thinking. "Nobody could fake that anxiety. He doesn't want the old man to die—and he's his heir—to millions. Well, I like him better than ever for it. I believe if I got typhoid he'd personally carry me to the hospital or do any other thing that came into his head. Well, now it's for me to find a competent salesman for this May sale that's on with such a rush. It's going to be hard to manage without Benson."
The long, low car had never made faster time to the city, and it was in the early dusk that it came to a standstill before the porch of the Gray home. Doors and windows were wide open, lights gleamed everywhere, but the house was very quiet. The car had stolen up as silently as a car of fine workmanship may in these days of motor perfection, but it had been heard, and Mrs. Robert Gray came out to meet Richard before he could ring.
"My dear Mr. Richard," she said, pressing his hand, her face very grave and sweet, "you have come quickly. I am glad, for we are anxious. Your grandfather has dropped into a strange, drowsy state, from which it seems impossible to rouse him. But I hope you may be able to do so. He has wanted you from the first moment."
"Tell me which way to go," cried Richard, under his breath. "Is he upstairs?"
She kept her hold upon his hand, and he gripped it tight as she led him up the stairs. It was as if he felt a mother's clasp for the first time since his babyhood and could not let it go.
"In here," she indicated softly, and the young man went in, his head bent, his lips set.
* * * * *
Two hours afterward he came out. She was waiting for him, though it was midnight. Louis and Stephen were waiting, too, and they in turn grasped his hand, their faces pitiful for the keen grief they saw in his. Then Mrs. Gray took him down to the porch, where the warm May night folded them softly about. She sat down beside him on a wide settle.
"He is all I have in the world!" cried Richard Kendrick. "If he goes—" He could not say more, and, turning, put his arms down upon the back of the seat and his head upon them. Great, tearless sobs shook him. Mrs. Gray laid her kind hand upon his shoulder, and spoke gentle, motherly words—a few words, not many—and kept her hand there until he had himself under control again.
By and by Mrs. Stephen Gray came out with a little tray upon which was set forth a simple lunch, daintily served. The young man tried to eat, to show her how much this touched him, but succeeded in swallowing only a portion of the delicate food. Then he got up. "You are all so good," said he gratefully. "You have helped me more than I can tell you. I will go back now. I want to stay with him to-night, if you will allow me."
They gave him a room across the hall from that in which his grandfather lay, but he did not occupy it. All night he sat, a silent figure on the opposite side of the bed from that where the nurse was on guard. His grandfather's regular physician was in attendance the greater part of the night at his request, though there seemed nothing to do but await the issue. Another distinguished member of the profession had seen the case in consultation early in the evening, and the two had found themselves unable between them to discover a remote possibility of hope.
In the early morning the watcher stole downstairs, feeling as if he must for at least a few moments get into the outer world. His eyes were heavy with his vigil, yet there was no sleep behind them, and he could not bear to be long away lest a change come suddenly. The old man had not roused when he had first spoken to him, and the nurse had said that his last conscious words had been a call for his grandson. Goaded by this thought, Richard turned back before he had so much as reached the foot of the garden, where he had thought he should spend at least a quarter of an hour.
As he came in at the door he was met by Roberta, cool and fresh in blue. It was but five in the morning; surely she did not commonly rise at this hour, even in May. The thought made his heart leap. She came straight to him and put both hands in his, saying in her friendly, low voice: "Mr. Kendrick, I'm sorry—sorry!"
He looked long and hungrily into her face, holding her hands with such a fierce grasp that he hurt her cruelly, though she made no sign. He did not even thank her—only held her until every detail of her face had been studied. She let him do it, and only dropped her eyes and stood colouring warmly under the inquisition. It was as if she understood that the sight of her was a moment's sedative for an aching heart, and she must yield it or be more unkind than it was in the heart of woman to be. When he released her it was with a sigh that came up from the depths, and as she left him he stood and watched her until she was out of sight.
* * * * *
When Matthew Kendrick opened his eyes at ten o'clock on the morning after his fall the first thing they rested upon was the face he loved best in the world. It came instantly nearer, the eyes meeting his imploringly, as if begging him to speak. So with some little effort he did speak. "Well, Dick," he said slowly, "I'm glad you came, boy. I wanted you; I didn't know but I was about getting through. But—I believe I'm still here, after all."
Then he saw a strange sight. Great tears leaped into the eyes he was looking at, tears that rolled unheeded down the fresh-coloured cheeks of his boy. Richard tried to speak, but could not. He could only gently grasp his grandfather's hand and press it tightly in both his own.
"I feel pretty well battered up," the old man continued, his voice growing stronger, "but I think I can move a little." He stirred slightly under his blanket, a fact the nurse noted with joyful intentness. "So I think I'm all here. Are you so glad, Dick, that you can cry about it?"
The smile came then upon his grandson's lighting face. "Glad, grandfather?" said he, with some difficulty. "Why, you're all I have in the world! I shouldn't know how to face it without you."
The old man dropped off to sleep again, his hand contentedly resting in his grandson's. Presently the doctor looked in, studied the situation in silence, held a minute's whispered colloquy with the nurse, then moved to Richard's side. The young man looked up at him and he nodded. He bent to Richard's ear.
"Things look different," he whispered succinctly. At the slight sibilance of the whisper the old man opened his eyes again. His glance travelled up the distinguished physician's body to his face. He smiled in quite his own whimsical way.
"Fooled even a noted person like you, did I, Winston?" he chuckled feebly. "Just because I chose to go to sleep and didn't fidget round much you thought I'd got my quietus, did you?"
"I think you're a pretty vigorous personality," responded the physician, "and I'm quite willing to be fooled by you. Now I want you to take a little nourishment and go to sleep again. If you think so much of this young man of yours you can have him again in an hour, but I'm going to send him away now. You see, he's been sitting right there all night."
Matthew Kendrick's eyes rested fondly again upon Richard's smiling face. "You rascal!" he sighed. "You always did give me trouble about being up o' nights!"
* * * * *
Richard Kendrick ran downstairs three steps at a bound. At the bottom he met Judge Calvin Gray. He seized the hand of his grandfather's old-time friend and wrung it. The expression of heavy sadness on the Judge's face changed to one of bewilderment, and as he scanned the radiant countenance of Matthew Kendrick's grandson he turned suddenly pale with joy.
"You don't mean—"
Then he comprehended that Richard was finding it as hard to speak good news as if it had been bad. But in an instant the young man was in command of himself again.
"It wasn't apoplexy—it wasn't paralysis—it was only the shock of the fall and the bruises. He's been talking to me; he's been twitting the doctor on having been fooled. Oh, he's as alive as possible, and I—Judge Gray, I never was so happy in my life!"
With congratulations in his heart for his old friend on the possession of this young love which was as genuine as it was strong, the Judge said: "Well, my dear fellow, let us thank God and breathe again. This has been the darkest night I've spent in many a year—and this is the brightest morning."
Everybody in the house was presently rejoicing in the news. But if Richard expected Roberta to be as generous with him in his joy as she had been in his grief he found himself disappointed. She did not fail to express to him her sympathy with his relief, but she did it with reinforcements of her family at hand, and with Ruth's arm about her waist. She had trusted him when torn with anxiety; clearly she did not trust him now in the reaction from that anxiety. He was in wild spirits, no doubt of that; she could see it in his brilliant eyes.
It still lacked six weeks of Midsummer.
Louis Gray sat in a capacious willow easy-chair beside the high white iron hospital bed upon which lay Hugh Benson, convalescing from his attack of fever. "Pretty comfortable they make you here," Louis observed, glancing about. "I didn't know their private rooms were as big and airy as this one."
Benson smiled. "I don't imagine they all are. I didn't realize what sort of quarters I was in till I began to get better and mother told me. According to her I have the best in the place. That's Rich. Whatever he looks after is sure to be gilt-edged. I wonder if you know what a prince of good fellows he is, anyway."
"I always knew he was a good fellow," Louis agreed. "He has that reputation, you know—kind-hearted and open-handed. I should know he would be a substantial friend to his college classmate and business partner."
"He's much more than that." Benson's slow and languid speech took on a more earnest tone. "Do you know, I think if any young man in this city has been misjudged and underrated it's Rich. I know the reputation you speak of; it's another way of calling a man a spendthrift, to say he's free with his money among his friends. But I don't believe anybody knows how free Rich Kendrick is with it among people who have no claim on him. I never should have known if I hadn't come here. One of my nurses has told me a lot of things she wasn't supposed ever to tell; but once she had let a word drop I got it out of her. Why, Louis, for three years Rich has paid the expenses of every sick child that came into this hospital, where the family was too poor to pay. He's paid for several big operations, too, on children that he wanted to see have the best. There are four special private rooms he keeps for those they call his patients, and he sees that whoever occupies them has everything they need—and plenty of things they may not just need, but are bound to enjoy—including flowers like those."
He pointed to a splendid bowlful of blossoms on a stand behind Louis, such blossoms as even in June grow only in the choicest of gardens.
"All this is news to me," declared Louis; "mighty good news, too. But how has he been able to keep it so quiet?"
"Hospital people all pledged not to tell; so of course you and I mustn't be responsible for letting it out, since he doesn't want it known. I'm glad I know it, though, and I felt somehow that you ought to know. I used to think a lot of Rich at college, but now that he's my partner I think so much more I can't be happy unless other people appreciate him. And in the business—I can't tell you what he is. He's more like a brother than a partner."
His thin cheeks flushed, and Louis suddenly bethought himself. "I'm letting you talk too much, Hugh," he said self-accusingly. "Convalescents mustn't overexert themselves. Suppose you lie still and let me read the morning paper to you."
"Thank you, my nurse has done it. Talking is really a great luxury and it does me good, a little of it. I want to tell you this about Rich—"
The door opened quietly as he spoke and Richard Kendrick himself came in. Quite as usual, he looked as if he had that moment left the hands of a most scrupulous valet. No wonder Louis's first thought was, as he looked at him, that people gave him credit for caring only for externals. One would not have said at first glance that he had ever soiled his hands with any labour more tiring than that of putting on his gloves. And yet, studying him more closely in the light of the revelations his friend had made, was there not in his attractive face more strength and force than Louis had ever observed before?
"How goes it this morning, Hugh?" was the new-comer's greeting. He grasped the thin hand of the convalescent, smiling down at him. Then he shook hands with Louis, saying, "It's good of such a busy man to come in and cheer up this idle one," and sat down as if he had come to stay. But he had no proprietary air, and when a nurse looked in he only bowed gravely, as if he had not often seen her before. If Louis had not known he would not have imagined that Richard's hand in the affair of Benson's illness had been other than that of a casual caller.
Louis Gray went away presently, thinking it over. He was thinking of it again that evening as he sat upon the big rear porch of the Gray home, which looked out upon the lawn and tennis court where he and Roberta had just been having a bout lasting into the twilight.
"I heard something to-day that surprised me more than anything for a long time," he began, and when his sister inquired what the strange news might be he repeated to her as he could remember it Hugh Benson's outline of the extraordinary story about Richard Kendrick. When she had heard it she observed:
"I suppose there is much more of that sort of thing done by the very rich than we dream of."
"By old men, yes—and widows, and a few other classes of people. But I don't imagine it's so common as to be noticeable among the young men of his class, do you?"
"Perhaps not. Though you do hear of wonderful things the bachelors do at Christmas for the poor children."
"At Christmas—that's another story. Hearts get warmed up at Christmas, that, like old Scrooge's, are cold and careless the rest of the year. But for a fellow like Rich Kendrick to keep it up all the year round—you'll find that's not so commonplace a tale."
"I don't know much about rich young men."
"You've certainly kept this one at a distance," Louis observed, eying his sister curiously in the twilight. She was sitting in a boyish attitude, racket on lap, elbows on knees, chin on clasped hands, eyes on the shadowy garden. "He's been coming here evening after evening until now that his grandfather has gone home, and never once has anybody seen you so much as standing on the porch with him, to say nothing of strolling into the garden. What's the matter with you, Rob? Any other girl would be following him round and getting into his path. Not that you would need to, judging by the way I've seen him look at you once or twice. Have you drawn an imaginary circle around yourself and pointed out to him the danger of crossing it? I should take him for a fellow who would cross it then anyhow!"
"Imaginary circles are sometimes bigger barriers than stone walls," she admitted, smiling to herself, "Besides, Lou, I thought somebody else was the person you wanted to see walking in the garden with me."
"Forbes? The person I expected to see, you mean. Well, I don't know about Forbes Westcott. He's a mighty clever chap, but I sometimes think his blood is a little thin—like his body. I can't imagine his bothering about a sick child at a hospital, can you? I've never seen him take a minute's notice of Steve's pair; and they're little trumps, if ever children were. Corporations are more in his line than children."
* * * * *
One thing leads to another in this interesting world. It was not two days after this talk that Roberta herself had a private view of a little affair which proved more illuminating to her understanding of a certain fellow mortal than might have been all the evidence of other witnesses than her own eyes.
Returning from school on one of the last days of the term, weary of walls and longing for the soothing stillness and refreshment of outdoors, Roberta turned aside some distance from her regular course to pass through a large botanical park, originally part of a great estate, and newly thrown open to the public. It was, as yet, less frequented than any other of the city parks. Much of it, according to the decree of its donor, a nature lover of discrimination, had been left in a state not far removed from wildness, and it was toward this portion that Roberta took her way; experiencing, with each step along a winding, secluded path she had recently discovered, that sense of escape into luxurious freedom which comes only after enforced confinement when the world outside is at its most alluring.
At a point where the path swept high above a long, descending slope, at the foot of which lay a tiny pool surrounded by thick and beautifully kept turf, Roberta paused, and after looking about her for a minute to make sure that there was no one near, turned aside from the path and threw herself down beside a great clump of ferns, breathing a deep sigh of restful relief. She sat gazing dreamily down at the pool, in which was mirrored an exquisite reflection of tree and sky, the scene as silent and still as though drawn upon canvas. She had many things to think of, in these days, and a place like this was an ideal one in which to think.
Was it? Far below her she heard the low hum of a motor. None could come near her, but the road beneath wound near the pool, though out of sight except at one point. In spite of this, the girl drew back further into the shelter of the tall ferns, thinking as she did so that it was the first time she had seen this remoter part of the park invaded by either motorist or pedestrian. Watching the point at which the car must appear she saw it come slowly into sight and stop. There were two occupants, a man and a boy, but at the distance she could not discern their faces. The man stepped out, and coming around to the other side of the car put out his arms and lifted the boy. He did not set him down, but carried him, seeming to hold him with peculiar care, and brought him through the surrounding trees and shrubbery to the pool itself, coming, as he did so, into full view of the unseen eyes above.
Roberta experienced a sudden strange leap of the heart as she saw that the supple figure of the man was Richard Kendrick's own, and that the slight frame he bore was that of a crippled child. She could see now the iron braces on the legs, like pipe stems, which stuck straight out from the embrace of the strong young arm which held them. She could discern clearly the pallor and emaciation of the small face, in pitiful contrast to the ruggedly healthy one of the child's bearer. Fascinatedly she watched as Richard set his burden carefully down upon the grass, close to the edge of the pool, the boy's back against a big white birch trunk. The two were not so far below her but that she could see the expression on their faces, though she could not hear their words.
Richard ran back to the car, returning with a rug and something in a long and slender case. He arranged a cushion behind the little back. Roberta judged the boy to be about eight or nine years old, though small for his age, as such children are. Richard undid the case and produced a small fishing-rod, which he fell to preparing for use, talking gayly as he did so, watched eagerly by his youthful companion. Evidently the boy was to have a great and unaccustomed pleasure.
Well, it was certainly in line with that which Roberta had heard of this young man, but somehow to see something of it with her own eyes was singularly more convincing. She could not bring herself to get up and go away—surely there could be no need to feel that she was spying if she stayed to watch the interesting scene. If Richard had chosen a spot which he fancied entirely secluded from observation, it was undoubtedly wholly on the boy's own account. She could easily imagine how such a child as this one would shrink from observation in a public place, particularly when he was to try the dearly imagined but wholly unknown delight of fishing. It was plain that he was very shy, even with this kind friend, for it was only now and then that he replied in words to Richard's talk, though the response in the white face and big black eyes was eloquent enough.
It seemed in every way remarkable that a young man of Richard Kendrick's sort should devote himself to a poor and crippled child as he was doing now. Not a gesture or act of his was lost upon the girl who watched. Clearly he was taking all possible pains to please and interest his little protege, and he was doing it in a way which showed much skill, suggesting previous practice in the art. This was no such interest as he had shown in Gordon and Dorothy Gray, whose beauty had been so powerful an appeal to his fancy. There was nothing about this child to take hold upon any one except his helplessness and need. But Richard was as gentle with him, as patient with his awkward attempts at holding the light rod in the proper position for fishing, and as full of resources for entertaining him when the fish—if there were any—failed to bite, as he could have been with a small brother of his own.
There was another thing which it was impossible not to note: Never had Roberta seen this young man in circumstances so calculated to impress upon her the potency of his personality. Unconscious of the scrutiny of any other human being, wholly absorbed in the task of making a small boy happy, he was naturally showing her himself precisely as he was. In place of his usual careful manners when in her presence was entire freedom from restraint and therefore an effect uncoloured by conventional environment. The tones of his voice, the frank smile upon his lips, the touch of his hand upon the little lad's—all these combined to set him before Roberta in a light so different from any she had seen him in before that she must needs admit she had been far from knowing him.
She stole away at length, feeling suddenly that she had seen enough, and that her defences against the siege being made upon her heart and judgment were weakening perilously. If she were to hold out before it she must hear of no more affairs to Richard Kendrick's credit, especially such affairs as these. Not all his efforts at establishing a successful career in the world of achievement could touch her imagination as did the knowledge of his brotherly kindness toward the unfortunate. That was what meant most to Roberta, in a world which she had early discovered to be a hard place for the greater part of its inhabitants. Forgetfulness of self, devotion to the need of others—these were the qualities she most strove to cultivate in herself, and most rejoiced at seeing developed in those for whom she cared.
Unluckily for his cause, if there had been a possible chance for its success, Forbes Westcott chose the evening of this same day to come again to Roberta Gray with his question burning on his lips. He arrived at a moment when, to his temporary satisfaction, Roberta was said to be playing a set of singles in the court with Ruth by the light of a fast-fading afterglow; and he took his way thither without delay. It was a simple matter, of course, to a man of his resource, to dispose of the young sister, in spite of the elder's attempt to foil him at his own game. So presently he had Roberta to himself, with every advantage of time and place and summer beauty all about.
Louis Gray, looking down the lawn from the rear porch, upon whose steps he sat with Rosamond and Stephen, descried the tall figure strolling by their sister's side along a stretch of closely shaven turf between rows of slim young birches.
"Forbes is persistent, eh?" he observed. "Think he has a fighting chance?"
"Oh, I hope not!" cried Rosamond impulsively.
Stephen's grave eyes followed the others, to dwell upon the distant pair. "Forbes stands to win a big place among men," was his comment.
"Oh, really big?" Rosamond's tender eyes came to meet her husband's. "Stephen, do you think he is quite—scrupulous?—wholly honourable?"
"I have no reason to think otherwise, Rosy."
She shook her head. "Somehow I—could never quite trust him. He would live strictly by the letter of the law—but the spirit—"
"Expect people to live by the spirit—these days, little girl?" inquired Louis, with an affectionate glance at her.
She gazed straight back. "Yes. You do it—and so does Stephen—and Father Gray—and Uncle Calvin."
The eyes of the brothers met above her fair head, and they smiled.
"That's high distinction, from you, dear," said her husband. "But you must not do Westcott injustice. He has the reputation of being sharp as a knife blade, and of outwitting men in fair contest in court and out of it, but no shadow has ever touched his character."
Still she shook her head. "I can't help it. I don't want Rob to marry him."
The young men laughed together, and Rosamond smiled with them.
"There you have it," said Louis. "There's no going behind those returns. The county votes no, and the candidate is defeated. Let him console himself with the vote from other counties—if he can."
The three were still upon the porch half an hour later, with others of the family, when the two figures came again up the stretch of lawn between the slim white birches, showing ghostlike now in the June moonlight. They came in silence, as far as any sound of their voices reached the porch, and they disappeared like two shades toward the front of the house.
"He's not coming even to speak to us," whispered Rosamond to Stephen. "That's very unlike him. Do you suppose—"
"It may be a case of the voice sticking in the throat," returned her husband, under his breath. "I fancy he'll take it hard when Rob disposes of him—as she certainly ought to do by this time, if she's not going to take him. But she'd better think twice. He's a brilliant fellow, and he has no rivals within hailing distance, in his line."
But Rosamond shook her head again. "He would never make her happy," she breathed, with conviction. "Oh, I hope—I hope!"
Her hopes grew with Roberta's absence. Westcott had gone, for Ruth, appearing at Rosamond's side, announced that Roberta was in her own room, and would not be down again to-night.
"I think she has a headache," said the little sister. "Queer, for I never knew Rob to have a headache before."
"The headache," murmured Louis, in Rosamond's ear, "is the feminine defence against the world. A timely headache, now and then, is suffered by the best of men—and women. Well—let her rest, Rufus. She'll be all right in the morning."
Above them, by her open window, sat Roberta, for a little while, elbows on sill, chin in hands. Then, presently, she stole downstairs again, out by a side entrance, and away among the shrubbery, to the furthest point of the grounds—not far, in point of actual distance, but quite removed by its environment from contact with the world around. Here, stretched upon the warm turf, her arms outflung, her eyes gazing up at the star-set heavens above her, the girl rested from her encounter with a desperate besieging force.
For a time, the last words she had heard that evening were ringing in her ears—sombre words, uttered in a deep tone of melancholy, by a voice which commanded cadences that had often reached the minds and hearts of men and swayed them. "Is that all—all, Roberta? Must I go away with that?"
She had sent him away, and her heart ached for him, for she could not doubt the depth and sincerity of his feeling for her. Being a woman, with a warm and kindly nature, she was sad with the disquieting thought that anywhere under that starry sky was one whose spirit was heavy to-night because of her. But—there had been no help for it. She knew now, beyond a doubt, that there had been no help.
Revelations were in order in these days. Another of a quite different sort came to Roberta within the week. On a morning when she knew Richard Kendrick to be in Eastman she consented to drive with Mrs. Stephen to make a call upon Mr. Matthew Kendrick, now at home and recovering satisfactorily from his fall, but still confined to his room. With a basketful of splendid garden roses upon her arm she followed Rosamond into the great stone pile.
They seemed to have left the sunlight and the summer day itself outside as they sat waiting in the stiff and formal reception-room, which looked as if no woman's hand or foot had touched it for a decade. As they were conducted to Mr. Kendrick's room upon the floor above they noted with observant eyes the cheerless character of every foot of the way—lofty hall, sombre staircase, gloomy corridor. Even Mr. Kendrick's own room, filled though it was with costly furniture, its walls hung with portraits and heavy oil paintings, after the fashion of the rich man who wants his home comfortable and attractive but does not know how to make it so, was by no means homelike.
"This is good of you—this is good of you," the old man said happily, as they approached his couch. He held out his hands to them, and when Roberta presented her roses, exclaimed over them like a pleased child, and sent his man hurrying about to find receptacles for them. He lay looking from the flowers to the faces while he talked, as if he did not know which were the more refreshing to his eyes, weary of the surroundings to which they had been so long accustomed.
"These will be the first thing Dick will spy when he comes to-morrow," he prophesied. "I never saw a fellow so fond of roses. The last time he was down he found time to tell me about somebody's old garden up there in Eastman, where they have some kind of wonderful, old-fashioned rose with the sweetest fragrance he ever knew. He had one in his coat; the sight of it took me back to my boyhood. But he wasn't all roses and gardens, not a bit of it! I never thought to see him so absorbed in such a subject as the management of a business. But he's full of it—he's full of it! You can't imagine how it delights me."
He was full of it himself. Though he more than once apologized for talking of his grandson and his pleasure in the way "the boy" was throwing himself into the real merits of the problems presented to the new firm in Eastman, he kept returning to this fascinating subject. It was not of interest to himself alone, and though Roberta only listened, Mrs. Stephen led him on, asking questions which he answered with eager readiness. But all at once he pulled himself up short.
"Dick would be the first person to hush my garrulous old tongue," said he. "But I feel like father and mother and grandfather all combined, in the matter of his success. I wouldn't have you think his making good—as they say in these days—in the world I am used to is my only idea of success. No, no, he has a world of his own besides. I should like you to see—there are several things I should like you to see. Last winter Dick begged from me a portrait of his mother which I had done when he was a year old; she lived only six months after that. He has it now over his desk. His father's portrait is on the opposite wall. Should you care to step across the hall into my grandson's rooms? The portraits I speak of are in the second room of the suite. Stop and examine anything else that interests you; I am sure he would be proud; and he has brought back many interesting things, principally pictures, from his travels. I should like to go with you, but if you will be so kind—"
There was no refusing the enthusiastic old man. He sent his housekeeper to see that the rooms were open of window and ready for inspection, then waved his guests away. Mrs. Stephen went with alacrity; Roberta followed more slowly, as if she somehow feared to go. Of all the odd happenings!—that she should be walking into Richard Kendrick's own habitation, with all the intimate revelations it was bound to make to her. She wondered what he would say if he knew.
The first room was precisely what she might have expected, quite obviously the apartment of a modern young man whose wishes lacked no opportunity to satisfy themselves. The room was not in bad taste; on the contrary, its somewhat heavy furnishings had an air of dignity in harmony with an earlier day than that more ostentatious period in which the rest of the house had been fitted. Upon its walls was a choice collection of pictures of various styles and schools of art, some of them unquestionably of much value. At one end of the room stood a closed grand piano. But, like the grandfather's room, the place could not by any stretch of the imagination be called homelike, and to this fact Rosamond called her companion's attention.
"It's really very interesting," said she, "and quite impressive, but I don't wonder in the least at his saying that he had no home. This might be a room in a fine hotel; there's nothing to make you feel as if anybody really lives here, in spite of the beautiful paintings. But Mr. Kendrick said the portraits were in the second room."
On her way into the second room, however, Rosamond's attention was attracted by a picture beside the door opening thereto, and with an exclamation, "Oh, this looks like Gordon! Where did he get it?" she paused. Roberta glanced that way, but a quite different object in the inner room had caught her eye, and leaving Rosamond to her wonder over a rather remarkable resemblance to her own little son in the rarely exquisite colour-drawing of a child of similar age, she went on, to stand still in the doorway, surprised out of all restraint as to the use of her interested eyes.
For this, contrary to all possible expectations, was either the room of a man of literary tastes, and of one who also preferred simplicity and utility to display of any sort, or it was an extremely clever imitation of such a room. And there were certain rather trustworthy evidences of the former.
The room, although smaller than the outer one, was a place of good size, with several large windows. Its walls to a height of several feet were lined with bookshelves filled to overflowing, the whole representing no less than three or four thousand books; Roberta could hardly guess at their number. Several comfortable easy-chairs and a massive desk were almost the only other furnishings, unless one included a few framed foreign photographs and the two portraits which hung on opposite walls. These presently called for study.
Rosamond came in and stood beside her sister, regarding the portraits with curiosity. "The father has a remarkably fine face, hasn't he?" she observed, turning from one to the other. "Unusually fine; and I think his son resembles him. But he is more like his mother. Isn't she beautiful? And he never knew her; she died when he was such a little fellow. Isn't it touching to see how he has her there above his desk as if he wanted to know her? How many books! I didn't know he cared for books, did you? Perhaps they were his father's; though his father was a business man. Yet I don't know why we never credit business men with any interest in books. Perhaps they study them more than we imagine; they must study something. Rob, did you see the picture in the other room that looks so like Gordon? It seems almost as if it must have been painted from him."
She flitted back into the outer room. Roberta stood still before the desk, above which hung the portrait of the lovely young woman who had been Richard's mother. Younger than Roberta herself she looked; such a girl to pass away and leave her baby, her first-born! And he had her here in the place of honour above his desk, where he sat to write and read. For he did read, she grew sure of it as she looked about her. Though the room was obviously looked after by a servant, it was probable that there were orders not to touch the contents of the desk-top itself, for this was as if it had been lately used. Books, a foreign review or two, a pile of letters, various desk furnishings in a curious design of wrought copper, and—what was this?—a little photograph in a frame! Horses, three of them, saddled and tied to a fence; at one side, in an attitude of arrested attention, a girl's figure in riding dress.
A wave of colour surged over Roberta's face as she picked up the picture to examine it. She had never thought again of the shot he had snapped; he had never brought it to her. Instead he had put it into this frame—she noted the frame, of carved ivory and choice beyond question—and had placed it upon his desk. There were no other photograph's of people in the room, not one. If she had found herself one among many she might have had more—or less—reason for displeasure; it was hard to say which. But to be the only one! Yet doubtless—in his bedroom, the most intimate place of all, which she was not to see, would be found his real treasures—photographs of beauties he had known, married women, girls, actresses—She caught herself up!
Rosamond, eager over the colour-drawing, had taken it from its place on the wall and gone with it across the hall to discuss its extraordinary likeness with the old man, who had sent for little Gordon several times during his stay at the Gray home and would be sure to appreciate the resemblance. Roberta, again engaged with the portrait above the desk, had not noticed her sister's departure. There was something peculiarly fascinating about this pictured face of Richard Kendrick's mother. Whether it was the illusive likeness to the son, showing first in the eyes, then in the mouth, which was one of extraordinary sweetness, it was hard to tell. But the attempt to analyze it was absorbing.
The sound of a quick step in the outer room, as it struck a bit of bare floor between the costly rugs which lay thickly upon it, arrested her attention. That was not Rosy's step! Roberta turned, a sudden fear upon her, and saw the owner of the room standing, as if surprised out of power to proceed, in the doorway.
Now, it was manifestly impossible for Roberta to know just how she looked, standing there, as he had seen her for the instant before she turned. From her head to her feet she was dressed in white, therefore against the dull background of books and heavy, plain panelling above, her figure stood out with the effect of a cameo. Her dusky hair under her white hat-brim was the only shadowing in a picture which was to his gaze all light and radiance. He stood staring at it, his own face glowing. Then:
"Oh—Roberta!" he exclaimed, under his breath. Then he came forward, both hands outstretched. She let him have one of hers for an instant, but drew it away again—with some difficulty.
"You must be surprised to find me here." Roberta strove for her usual cool control. "Rosy and I came to see your grandfather. He sent us in here to look at these portraits. Rosy has gone back to him with a picture she thought looked like Gordon. I—was staying a minute to see this; it is very beautiful."
He laughed happily. "You have explained it all away. I wish you had let me go on thinking I was dreaming. To find you—here!" He smothered an exultant breath and went on hastily:—"I'm glad you find my mother beautiful. I never knew how beautiful she was till I brought her up here and put her where I could look at her. Such a little, girlish mother for such a strapping son! But she has the look—somehow she has the look! Don't you think she has? I was a year old when that was painted—just in time, for she died six months afterward. But she had had time to get the look, hadn't she?"
"Indeed she had. I can imagine her holding her little son. Is there no picture of her with you?"
"None at all that I can find. I don't know why. There's one of me on my father's knee, four years old—just before he went, too. I am lucky to have it. I can just remember him, but not my mother at all. Do you mind my telling you that it was after I saw your mother I brought this portrait of mine up from the drawing-room and put it here? It seemed to me I must have one somehow, if only the picture of one." His voice lowered. "I can't tell you what it has done for me, the having her here."
"I can guess," said Roberta softly, studying the young, gently smiling, picture face. Somehow her former manner with this young man had temporarily deserted her. The appeal of the portrait seemed to have extended to its owner. "You—don't want to disappoint her," she added thoughtfully.
"That's it—that's just it," he agreed eagerly. "How did you know?"
"Because that's the way I feel about mine. They care so much, you know." She moved slowly toward the door. "I must go back to your grandfather."
"Why? He has Mrs. Stephen, you say. And I—like to see you here. There are a lot of things I want to show you." His eager gaze dropped to the desk-top and fell upon the ivory-framed photograph. He looked quickly at her. Her cheeks were of a rich rose hue, her eyes—he could not tell what her eyes were like. But she moved on toward the door. He followed her into the other room.
"Won't you stay a minute here, then? I don't care for it as I do the other, but—it's a place to talk in. And I haven't talked to you for—four months. It's the middle of June.... Let me show you this picture over here."
He succeeded in detaining her for a few minutes, which raced by on wings for him. He did it only by keeping his speech strictly upon the subject of art, and presently, in spite of his endeavours, she was off across the room and out of the door, through the hall and in the company of Mrs. Stephen and Mr. Matthew Kendrick. The pair, the old man and the girlish young mother, looked up from a collection of miniatures, brought out in continuance of the discussion over child faces begun by Rosamond's interest in the colour-drawing found upon Richard's walls. They saw a flushed and heart-disturbing face under a drooping white hat-brim, and eyes which looked anywhere but at them, though Roberta's voice said quite steadily: "Rosy, do you know how long we are staying?"
In explanation of this sudden haste another face appeared, seen over Roberta's shoulder. This face was also of a somewhat warm colouring, but these eyes did not hide; they looked as if they were seeing visions and noted nothing earthly.
"Why, Dick!" exclaimed Mr. Kendrick. "I didn't expect you till to-morrow." Gladness was in his voice. He held out welcoming hands, and his grandson came to him and took the hands and held them while he explained the errand which had brought him and upon which he must immediately depart. But he would come again upon the morrow, he promised. It was clear that the closest relations existed between the two; it was a pleasant thing to see. And when Richard turned out again toward the visitors he had his face in order.
Some imperceptible signalling had been exchanged between Roberta and Rosamond, and the call came shortly to an end, in spite of the old man's urgent invitation to them to remain.
"Do you see the roses they brought me, Dick?" He indicated the bowls and vases which stood about the room. "I told them you would notice them directly you came in. Where are your eyes, boy?"
"Do you really blame me for not seeing them, grandfather?" retorted his grandson audaciously. "But I recognize them now; they are wonderful. I suppose they have thorns?" His eyes met Roberta's for one daring instant.
"You wouldn't like them if they didn't," said she.
"Shouldn't I? I'd like to find one with the thorns off; I'd wear it—if I might. May I have one, grandfather?"
"Of course, Dick. They're mine now to give away, Miss Roberta? Perhaps you'll put it on for him."
Since the suggestion was made by an old man, who might or might not have been wholly innocent of taking sides in a game in which his boy was playing for high stakes, Roberta could do no less than hurriedly to select a splendid crimson bud without regard to thorns—she was aware of more than one as she handled it—and fasten it upon a gray coat, intensely conscious of the momentary nearness of a personality whose influence upon her was the strangest, most perturbing thing she had ever experienced.
The flower in place, she could not get away too fast. Rosamond, understanding now that the air was electric and that her sister wanted nothing so much as to escape to a safer atmosphere, aided her by taking the lead and engaging Richard Kendrick in conversation all the way downstairs to the door and out to the waiting carriage. As they drove away Rosamond looked back at the figure leaping up the steps, with the crimson rose showing brilliantly in the June sunshine.
"Rob, he's splendid, simply splendid," she whispered, so that the old family coachman in front, driving the old family horses, could not hear. "I don't wonder his grandfather is so proud of him. One can see that he's going to go right on now and make himself a man worth anybody's while. He's that now, but he's going to be more."
"I don't see how you can tell so much from hearing him make a few foolish remarks about some roses!" Roberta's face was carefully averted.
"Oh, it wasn't what he said, it's what he is! It shows in his face. I never saw purpose come out so in a face as it has in his in the time that we've known him. Besides, we began by taking him for nothing but a society man, and we were mistaken in that from the beginning. Stephen has been telling me some things Louis told him."
"I know. About the hospital and the children."
"Yes. Isn't it interesting? And that's been going on for years; it's not a new pose for our benefit. I've no doubt there are lots of other things, if we knew them. But—oh, Rob, his grandfather says he bought the little head in colour because he thought it looked like Gordon. I'm going to send him the last photograph right away. Rob, there's Forbes Westcott!"
"Right ahead. Shall we stop and take him in? Of course he's on his way to see you, as usual. How he does anything in his own office—"
"James!" Roberta leaned forward and spoke to the coachman. "Turn down this street—quickly, please. Don't look, Rosy—don't! Let's not go straight home; let's drive a while. It—it's such a lovely day!"
"Why, Rob! I thought—"
"Please don't think anything. I'm trying not to."
Rosamond impulsively put her white-gloved hand on Roberta's. "I don't believe you are succeeding," she whispered daringly. "Particularly since—this morning!"
ROBERTA WAKES EARLY
Midsummer Day! Roberta woke with the thought in her mind, as it had been the last in her mind when she had gone to sleep. She had lain awake for a long time the night before, watching a strip of moonlight which lay like flickering silver across her wall. Who would have found it easy to sleep, with the consciousness beating at her brain that on the morrow something momentous was as surely going to happen as that the sun would rise? Did she want it to happen? Would she rather not run away and prevent its happening? There was no doubt that, being a woman, she wanted to run away. At the same time—being a woman—she knew that she would not run. Something would stay her feet.
With wide-open eyes on this Midsummer morning she lay, as she had lain the night before, regarding without attention the early sunlight flooding the room where moonlight had lain a few hours ago. Her bare, round arms, from which picturesque apologies for sleeves fell back, were thrown wide upon her pillows, her white throat and shoulders gleamed below the loose masses of her hair, her heart was beating a trifle more rapidly than was natural after a night of repose.
It was very early, as a little clock upon a desk announced—half after five. Yet some one in the house was up, for Roberta heard a light footfall outside her door. There followed a soft sound which drew her eyes that way; she saw something white appear beneath the door—in the old house the sills were not tight. The white rectangle was obviously a letter.
Her curiosity alive, she lay looking at this apparition for some time, unwilling to be heard to move even by a maidservant. But at length she arose, stole across the floor, picked up the missive, and went back to her bed. She examined the envelope—it was of a heavy plain paper; the address—it was in a hand she had seen but once, on the day when she had copied many pages of material upon the typewriter for her Uncle Calvin—a rather compact, very regular and positive hand, unmistakably that of a person of education and character.
She opened the letter with fingers that hesitated. Midsummer Day was at hand; it had begun early! Two closely written sheets appeared. Sitting among her pillows, her curly, dusky locks tumbling all about her face, her pulses beating now so fast they shook the paper in her fingers, she read his letter:
* * * * *
My Roberta: I can't begin any other way, for, even though you should never let me use the words again, you have become such a part of me, both of the man I am and of the man I want and mean to become, that in some degree you will always belong to me in spite of yourself.
Why do I write to you to-day? Because there are things I want to say to you which I could never wait to say when I see you, but which I want you to know before you answer me. I don't want to tell you "the story of my life," but I do feel that you must understand a few of my thoughts, for only so can I be sure that you know me at all.
Before I came to your home, one night last October, I had unconsciously settled into a way of living which as a rule seemed to me all-sufficient. My friends, my clubs, my books—yes, I care for my books more than you have ever discovered—my plans for travel, made up a life which satisfied me—a part of the time. Deep down somewhere was a sense of unrest, a knowledge that I was neither getting nor giving all that I was meant to. But this I was accustomed to stifle—except at unhappy hours when stifling would not work, and then I was frankly miserable. Mostly, however, my time was so filled with diversion of one sort or another that I managed to keep such hours from over-whelming me; I worried through them somehow and forgot them as soon as I could.
From the first day that I came through your door my point of view was gradually and strangely altered. I saw for the first time in my life what a home might be. It attracted me; more, it showed me how empty my own life was, that I had thought so full. The sight of your mother, of your brothers, of your sisters, of your brother's little children—each of these had its effect on me. As for yourself—Roberta, I don't know how to tell you that; at least I don't know how to tell you on paper. I can imagine finding words to tell you, if—you were very much nearer to me than you are now. I hardly dare think of that!
Yet I must try, for it's part of the story; it's all of it. With my first sight of you, I realized that here was what I had dreamed of but never hoped to find: beauty and charm and—character. I had seen many women who possessed two of these attributes; it seemed impossible to discover one who had all three. Many women I had admired—and despised; many I had respected—and disliked. I am not good at analysis, but perhaps you can guess at what I mean. I may have been unfortunate; I don't know. There may be many women who are both beautiful and good. No, that is not what I mean! The combination I am trying to describe as impossibly desirable is that not only of beauty and goodness—I suppose there are really many who have those; but—goodness and fascination! That's what a man wants. Can you possibly understand?
I wonder if I had better stop writing? I am showing myself up as hopelessly awkward at expression; probably because my heart is pounding so as I write that it is taking the blood from my brain. But—I'll make one more try at it.
I had no special purpose in life last October. I meant to do a little good in the world if I could—without too much trouble. Some time or other I supposed I should marry—intended to put it off as long as I could. I saw no reason why I shouldn't travel all I wanted to; it was the one thing I really cared for with enthusiasm. I didn't appreciate much what a selfish life I was leading, how I was neglecting the one person in the world who loved me and was anxious about me. Your little sister, Ruth, opened my eyes to that, by the way. I shall always thank her for it. I hadn't known what I was missing.
I don't know how the change came about. You charmed me, yet you made me realize every time I was with you that I was not the sort of man you either admired or respected. I felt it whenever I looked at any of the people in your home. Every one of them was busy and happy; every one of them was leading a life worth while. Slowly I waked up. I believe I'm wide awake now. What's more, nothing could ever tempt me to go to sleep again. I've learned to like being awake!
You decreed that I should keep away from you all these months. I agreed, and I have kept my word. All the while has been the fear bothering me beyond endurance that you did it to be rid of me. I said some bold words to you—to make you remember me. Roberta, I am humbler to-day than I was then. I shouldn't dare say them to you now. I was madly in love with you then; I dared say anything. I am not less in love now—great heavens! not less—but I have grown to worship you so that I have become afraid. When I saw you in my room before my mother's portrait I could have knelt at your feet. From the beginning I have felt that I was not worthy of you, but I feel it so much more deeply now that I don't know how to offer myself to you. I have written as if I wanted to persuade you that I am more of a man than when you knew me first, and therefore more worthy of you. I am more of a man, but by just so much more do I realize my own unworthiness.
And yet—it is Midsummer Day; this is the twenty-fourth of June—and I am on fire with love and longing for you, and I must know whether you care. If I were strong enough I would offer to wait longer before asking you to tell me—but I'm not strong enough for that.
I have a plan which I am hoping you will let me carry out, whatever answer you are going to give me. If you will allow it I will ask Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Gray to go with us on a long horseback ride this afternoon, to have supper at a place I know. I could take you all in my car if you prefer, but I hope you will not prefer it. You have never seemed like a motoring girl to me every other one I know is—and ever since I saw you on Colonel last November I've been hoping to have a ride with you. If I can have it to-day—Midsummer—it will be a dream fulfilled. If only I dared hope my other—and dearer—dream were to come true! Roberta, are we really so different? I have thought a thousand times of your "stout little cabin on the hilltop," where you would like to spend "the worst night of the winter." All alone? "Well, with a fire for company, and—perhaps—a dog." But not with a good comrade? "There are so few good comrades—who can be tolerant of one's every mood." You were right; there are few. And—this one might not be so clever as to understand every mood of yours, but—Roberta, Roberta—he would love you so much that you wouldn't mind if he didn't always understand. That is—you wouldn't mind if, in return, you—But I dare not say it—I can only hope—hope!
Unless you send me word to the contrary by ten o'clock, I will then ask Mr. and Mrs. Stephen, and arrange to come for you at four this afternoon. You are committed to nothing by agreeing to this arrangement. But I—am committed to everything for as long as I live. RICHARD.
* * * * *
It was well that it was not yet six o'clock in the morning and that Roberta had two long hours to herself before she need come forth from her room. She needed them, every minute of them, to get herself in hand.
It was a good letter, no doubt of that. It was neither clever nor eloquent, but it was better: it was manly and sincere. It showed self-respect; it showed also humility, a proud humility which rejoiced that it could feel its own unworthiness and know thereby that it would strive to be more fit. And it showed—oh, unquestionably it showed!—the depth of his feeling. Quite clearly he had restrained a pen that longed to pour forth his heart, yet there were phrases in which his tenderness had been more than he could hold back, and it was those phrases which made the recipient hold her breath a little as she read them, wondering how, if the written words were almost more than she could bear, she could face the spoken ones.
And now she really wanted to run away! If she could have had a week, a month, between the reading of this letter and the meeting of its writer, it seemed to her that it would have been the happiest month of her life. To take the letter with her into exile, to read it every day, but to wait—wait—for the real crisis till she could quiet her racing emotions. One sweet at a time—not an armful of them. But the man—true to his nature—the man wanted the armful, and at once. And she had made him wait all these months; she could not, knowing her own heart, put him off longer now. The cool composure with which, last winter, she had answered his first declaration that he loved her was all gone; the months, of waiting had done more than show him whether his love was real: they had shown her that she wanted it to be real.
The day was a hard one to get through. The hours lagged—yet they flew. At eight o'clock she went down, feeling as if it were all in her face; but apparently nobody saw anything beyond the undoubted fact that in her white frock she looked as fresh and as vivid as a flower. At half after ten Rosamond came to her to know if she had received an invitation from Richard Kendrick to go for a horseback ride, adding that she herself was delighted at the thought and had telephoned Stephen, to find that he also was pleased and would be up in time.
"I wonder where he's going to take us," speculated Rosamond, in a flutter of anticipation. "Without doubt it will be somewhere that's perfectly charming; he knows how to do such things. Of course it's all for you, but I shall love to play chaperon, and Stevie and I shall have a lovely time out of it. I haven't been on a horse since Dorothy came; I hope I haven't grown too stout for my habit. What are you going to wear, Rob? The blue cloth? You are perfectly irresistible in that! Do wear that rakish-looking soft hat with the scarf; it's wonderfully becoming, if it isn't quite so correct; and I'm sure Richard Kendrick won't take us to any stupid fashionable hotel. He'll arrange an outdoor affair, I'm confident, with the Kendrick chef to prepare it and the Kendrick servants to see that it is served. Oh, it's such a glorious June day! Aren't you happy, Rob?"
"If I weren't it would make me happy to look at you, you dear married child," and Roberta kissed her pretty sister-in-law, who could be as womanly as she was girlish, and whose companionship, with that of Stephen's, she felt to be the most discriminating choice of chaperonage Richard could have made. Stephen and Rosamond, off upon a holiday like this, would be celebrating a little honeymoon anniversary of their own, she knew, for they had been married in June and could never get over congratulating themselves on their own happiness.
RICHARD HAS WAKED EARLIER
Twelve o'clock, one o'clock, two o'clock. Roberta wondered afterward what she had done with the hours! At three she had her bath; at half after she put up her hair, hardly venturing to look at her own face in her mirror, so flushed and shy was it. Roberta shy?—she who, according to Ted, "wasn't afraid of anything in the world!" But she had been afraid of one thing, even as Richard Kendrick had averred. Was she not afraid of it now? She could not tell. But she knew that her hands shook as she put up her hair, and that it tumbled down twice and had to be done over again. Afraid! She was afraid, as every girl worth winning is, of the sight of her lover!
Yet when she heard hoofbeats on the driveway could have kept her from peeping out. The rear porch, from which the riding party would start, was just below her window, the great pillars rising past her. She had closed one of her blinds an hour before; she now made use of its sheltering interstices. She saw Richard on a splendid black horse coming up the drive, looking, as she had foreseen he would look, at home in the saddle and at his best. She saw the colour in his cheeks, the brightness in his eyes, caught his one quick glance upward—did he know her window? He could not possibly see her, but she drew back, happiness and fear fighting within her for the ascendency. Could she ever go down and face him out there in the strong June light, where he could see every curving hair of eyelash? note the slightest ebb and flow of blood in cheek?
Rosamond was calling: "Come, Rob! Mr. Kendrick is here and Joe is bringing round the horses. Can I help you?"
Roberta opened her door. "I couldn't do my hair at all; does it look a fright under this hat?"
Rosamond surveyed her. "Of course it doesn't. You're the most bewitching thing I ever saw in that blue habit, and your hair is lovely, as it always is. Rob, I have grown stout; I had to let out two bands before I could get this on; it was made before I was married. Steve's been laughing at me. Here he is; now do let's hurry. I want every bit of this good time, don't you?"
There was no delaying longer. Rosamond, all eagerness, was leading the way downstairs, her little riding-boots tapping her departure. Stephen was waiting for Roberta; she had to precede him. The next she knew she was down and out upon the porch, and Richard Kendrick, hat and crop in hand, was meeting her halfway, his expectant eyes upon her face. One glance at him was all she was giving him, and he was mercifully making no sign that any one looking on could have recognized beyond his eager scrutiny as his hand clasped hers. And then in two minutes they were off, and Roberta, feeling the saddle beneath her and Colonel's familiar tug on the bit at the start-off—he was always impatient to get away—was realizing that the worst, at least for the present, was over.
"Which way?" called Stephen, who was leading with Rosamond.
"Out the road past the West Wood marshes, please—straight out. Take it moderately; we're going about twelve miles and it's pretty warm yet."
There was not much talking while they were within the city limits—nor after they were past, for that matter. Rosamond, ahead with her husband, kept up a more or less fitful conversation with him, but the pair behind said little. Richard made no allusion to his letter of the morning beyond a declaration of his gratitude to the whole party for falling in with his plans. But the silence was somehow more suggestive of the great subject waiting for expression than any exchange of words could have been, out here in the open. Only once did the man's impatience to begin overcome his resolution to await the fitting hour.
Turning in his saddle as Colonel fell momentarily behind, passing the West Wood marshes, Richard allowed his eyes to rest upon horse and rider with full intent to take in the picture they made.
"I haven't ventured to let myself find out just how you look," he said. "The atmosphere seems to swim around you; I see you through a sort of haze. Do you suppose there can be anything the matter with my eyesight?"
"I should think there must be," she replied demurely. "It seems a serious symptom. Hadn't you better turn back?"
"While you go on? Not if I fall off my horse. I have a suspicion that it's made up of a curious compound of feelings which I don't dare to describe. But—may I tell you?—I must tell you—I never saw anything so beautiful in my life as—yourself, to-day. I—" He broke off abruptly. "Do you see that old rosebush there by those burnt ruins of a house? Amber-white roses, and sweet as—I saw them there yesterday when I went by. Let me get them for you."
He rode away into the deserted yard and up to a tangle of neglected shrubbery. He had some difficulty in getting Thunderbolt—who was as restless a beast as his name implied—to stand still long enough to allow him to pick a bunch of the buds; he would have nothing but buds just breaking into bloom. These he presently brought back to Roberta. She fancied that he had planned to stop here for this very purpose. Clearly he had the artist's eye for finishing touches. He watched her fasten the roses upon the breast of the blue-cloth habit, then he turned determinedly away.
"If I don't look at you again," said he, his eyes straight before him, "it's because I can't do it—and keep my head. You accused me once of losing it under a winter moon; this is a summer sun—more dangerous yet.... Shall we talk about the crops? This is fine weather for growing things, isn't it?"
"Wonderful. I haven't been out this road this season—as far as this. I'm beginning to wonder where you are taking us."
"To the hill where you and Miss Ruth and Ted and I toasted sandwiches last November. Could there be a better place for the end—of our ride? You haven't been out here this season—are you sure?"
"No, indeed. I've been too busy with the close of school to ride anywhere—much less away out here."
"You like my choice, then? I hoped you would."
It was a queer, breathless sort of talking; Roberta hardly knew what she was saying. She much preferred to ride along in silence. The hour was at hand—so close at hand! And there was now no getting away. She knew perfectly that her agreeing to come at all had told him his answer; none but the most cruel of women would allow a man to bring her upon such a ride, in the company of other interested people, only to refuse him at the end of it. But she had to admit to herself that if he were now exulting in the sure hope of possessing her he was keeping it well out of sight. There was now none of the arrogant self-confidence in his manner toward her which there had been on the February night when he had made a certain prophecy concerning Midsummer. Instead there was that in his every word and look which indicated a fine humility—almost a boyish sort of shyness, as if even while he knew the treasure to be within his grasp he could neither quite believe it nor feel himself fit to take it. From a young man of the world such as he had been it was the most exquisite tribute to her power to rouse the best in him that he could have given and she felt it to the inmost soul of her.
"Here are the forks," said Richard suddenly, and Roberta recognized with a start that they were nearly at the end of their journey.
"Which way?" Stephen was shouting back, and Richard was waving toward the road at the left, which led up the steep hill.
"Here is where you dropped the bunch of rose haws," said he, with a quick glance as they began the ascent. "I have them yet—brown and dry. Did you know you dropped them?"
"I remember. But I didn't suppose anybody—"
"Found them? By the greatest luck—and stopped my car in a hurry. They were bright on my desk for a month after that; I cared more for them than for anything I owned. I had the greatest difficulty in keeping my man from throwing them away, though. You see, he hadn't my point of view! Roberta—here we are! Will you forgive what will seem like a piece of the most unwarrantable audacity?" He was speaking fast as they came up over the crown of the hill: "I didn't do it because I was sure of anything at all, but because—it was something to make myself think I could carry out a wish of yours. Do you remember the 'stout little cabin on the hilltop', Roberta? Could you—could you care for it, as I do?"