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The Wishing Moon
by Louise Elizabeth Dutton
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Sebastian played on, drifting into something sophisticated, with a suggestion of waltz rhythms running through it. There was a stir of movement in the room, and the sound of windows opening and shutting, once, and then again. Judith did not turn her head to see who had gone out. She was too comfortable. It was strange that he could make you so comfortable with his music, when he made you so uncomfortable if you talked to him, watching you so closely with his queer, bright eyes.

He stopped abruptly, with a big, crashing discord, and Judith rubbed her eyes and sat up. Mrs. Kent was going to sing now. She tossed some music to him.

"That's over your head," she said; "over all your heads; better put me up there, too, Cleve. Besides, I want to dance. That table will do." She cleared it unceremoniously, with her husband's help, and established herself there, poised motionless, through the introductory bars of the song, her sleepy eyes wide awake now, and a red rose from a bowl on the table caught between her teeth.

Quietly, always careful to avoid the reputation of being shocked, like the Judge, Judith slipped down from her perch, and across the room, and out through the window.

"Please keep my folks from kickin'; Grab me while I'm a chicken, I'm getting older every day."

Mrs. Kent's fresh voice was urging, as Judith tiptoed across the veranda.

The rowdy words of her little songs and the demure plaintiveness of Mrs. Kent's voice made an effective contrast. It amused Judith as much as any one, and she liked to laugh, but she liked better to cry, and if you could not hear the words, Mrs. Kent's voice made you cry; big, luxurious tears, that stood in your eyes and did not fall. As she found her way across the lawn, among the elaborate flower-beds, the voice followed her, mellow and sweet. It had never sounded so sweet before. Everything sweet in the world was sweeter to-night.

At the edge of the lawn Judith paused. Ahead of her three marble steps, flanked by urns filled with ivy, glaring things in the daytime but glimmering shadowy white and alluring now, led up the terrace to the rose garden; a fairy place, far from the world, so hedged in and shadowed by trees that it was dark even by moonlight, entered through an old-fashioned trellised arbour, that was so mysterious and dark, she liked it almost as well now when the rambler roses were not in flower.

When she left the room her mother had been sitting in Colonel Everard's chair, she seemed to remember, and the Colonel and Mrs. Burr were nowhere to be seen. The whole room looked emptier, though she did not know who else was missing. But there were two people now in the rose arbour. She could just hear their voices, low, with long silences between.

She wanted the place to herself. She stood still, hoping that they would go. There was a path into the woods on the other side of the little garden: the Colonel's bare, semicultivated woods, combed clean of underbrush, but you did not miss it at night. The woods were full of adventure, but the garden was better to dream in, and Judith had a great deal to dream about.

The lighted house looked quite small and far away across the wide, moonlit lawn. They had stopped singing, and the laughter that followed the song did not sound so clear as the music; you could just hear it. Presently you could hear nothing, and it was quiet in the rose arbour, too. She waited until she was sure, standing quite still at the edge of the dark enclosure, not a ruffle of her white dress fluttering, very slender and small against the dark of the leaves. Then she slipped into the arbour.

Through a fringe of drooping vine that half hid the picture, she could see the garden, empty and dimly moonlit, with the marble benches faintly white. She hurried through, pushed a trailing vine aside, then dropped it and shrank back under the trellis.

The garden was empty. But across it, just at the entrance of the wood path, she saw a man and a woman. At first she took the two figures for one, they were standing so closely embraced. She could not see their faces, only the two dark figures standing there like one. They stood still a long time. They might have been lovers in a picture, only you could not paint pictures of darkly clothed, ungraceful, shapeless people. Finally they moved, the man turning suddenly, slipping an arm higher around the woman's shoulders, and putting his face down to hers.

Then he drew her into the wood path, and they passed down it out of sight. Judith did not know who the woman was, but the man was Colonel Everard. And they had kissed each other.

Now they were gone. Judith drew a deep breath of relief and stepped out into the enclosure, pacing across it with slow steps, possessing it for her own and dismissing alien presences. There was a high-backed marble erection between the benches, which looked like a memorial to the dear departed, but was designed for a chair. She seated herself there deliberately, leaning back, at ease somehow in the unfriendly depths of it, a slender, uncompromising creature, like a young princess sitting in judgment on her throne.

They had kissed each other. She knew they did things like this, but now she had seen it, which was different, and not very pleasant. But they were all so old. Did it really matter whether they kissed each other or not?

"Stupid old things," said Colonel Everard's only authorized critic, "I don't care what they do."

Here in the quiet of the garden you were free to think about more interesting things than the Everards or even fairy princes.

"Stupid," repeated Judith absently, and forgot the Everards. The moon, far away but very clear, shone down at her in an unwinking, concentrated way, as if it were shining into the Colonel's garden and nowhere else, and at nobody but Judith. She did not look disconcerted by the attention, but stared back at it with eyes that were not sleepy now, but very big and bright—wondering, but not afraid.

On still nights like this you could just hear the church clock strike from the garden, but you could not count all the strokes. Judith listened for the sound. It was early, and out here, in the cool, still air, it felt early, though the time had passed so slowly in the Colonel's sleepy rooms. She could hear no music from the house. They would soon begin to put out the bridge tables. There was always a chance that they would need her to complete a table, but if they did not, the Colonel's car was to take her home at nine.

And the Colonel's youngest guest had further plans for the evening.



CHAPTER SIX

"That will be all, Miss?"

"Yes," said Judith, with unnecessary emphasis. "Oh, yes, indeed!"

The Everards' car turned and flashed out of the drive and up the street. Judith stood still on the steps and watched it, if a young lady with her breath coming fast and her eyes shining bright in the dark, and her heart beating unaccountably hard can be said to be standing still. One light burned forlornly over the entrance of the inn. Light was Judge Saxon's one extravagance, and plenty of it was waiting for him in the house next door, though it would be two before any one left the Everards' but Judith.

The house before her was dark, and the dimly lighted street was profoundly still, with the heavy and brooding stillness that comes upon village streets after nine and is to be found nowhere else in the world. Judith did not seem depressed by it. Somewhere on a side street solitary footsteps echoed hollow through the silence, and she listened intently, but they came no nearer, and presently died away. She fumbled excitedly with her key, threw open the door, and groped her way across the unlighted hall. She encountered the telephone table prematurely, clutched it, and laughed a high-keyed, strange little laugh.

"Who's there?" demanded a voice from the stairs, disconcertingly close. The lights, switched suddenly on, flashed into Judith's eyes, and Norah confronted her, peculiarly forbidding in a discarded cape of Judith's and her own beflowered best hat.

"Oh, it's you," she said.

"Who did you expect? Anybody else? Did—anybody come?"

"I expected you a half hour ago."

"What made you wait for me?"

"Didn't you want me to?"

"Nana, of course, but if your sister is sick and needs you——"

Norah listened to this irreproachable sentiment suspiciously. "It's late to go," she said.

"I'll walk up with you if you're frightened."

"You! Can you unhook that dress?"

"Yes. I'm going to bed pretty soon. I'm awfully sleepy."

"There's some ginger ale on the ice."

"I can get it open myself. Did anybody come?"

"A boy you know."

"Who?"

"You're too anxious to know, and too anxious to get rid of me. And you're acting nervous."

"I'm not. I'm just sleepy."

Norah, her grimmest self, as she always was just before relenting, began to fumble with her hat-pins.

"Let me help, if you really want to take off your hat. You'll spoil your beautiful roses. Darling, you look like your niece, the lovely Miss Maggie Brady, in that hat. Don't take it off. You're cross because you know where I've been. Well, they didn't eat me. I'm all here. It was Willard who came, and I don't care whether you tell me or not. And I don't want to get rid of you. And I love you and you love me, and you're not cross now."

"If I love you, you've got need of it, then." Norah struggled perfunctorily, and permitted herself to be kissed. "Alone here till all hours of the night, and Mollie at the dance at the Falls, and your own mother——"

"But you won't worry about me? And you'll go? And you'll go now, before it gets later, so you won't be frightened. You'll go this minute? And—oh, Nana——"

Norah, departing by the front door because the back one was secured by an elaborate system of locks of her own invention, and operated only by herself, turned to give Judith a farewell glance of grim adoration.

"Nana, was it Willard that came?"

"Yes."

"And not—anybody else?"

"No."

Norah, winding herself tightly into the cape in a way that converted that traditionally graceful garment into a kind of armour, disappeared up the street. When she was out of sight, and not until then, Judith slammed the door shut, laughing her tense, excited laugh again.

Then, for a sleepy young woman, she began to display surprising activity. First she turned off all the lights in the hall but one, in an opalescent globe, over the front door, looked at the faintly lighted vestibule with a calculating eye, and turned that out also. She looked critically in at the library, close curtained for the night, and dimly lit by the embers of the wood fire, raked apart, but not dead. She pushed them together expertly, and added a stick, a little one, which would soon burn down to picturesque embers, like the rest. She pulled an armchair closer to the fire, pushed it away again, and dropped two cushions on the hearth with a discreet space between.

The remains of Willard's last half-dozen carnations and a box of the eighty-cent-a-pound candy which only Mr. Edward Ward was extravagant enough to prefer to the generally popular fifty-cent Belle Isle, were conspicuous on the table, and Judith carried them into the next room, out of sight. Just then the telephone rang.

Judith started, dropped the candy, ran into the hall, and stood looking down at the small instrument resentfully, as if it were personally to blame because she could not see who was calling her without answering and committing herself. Once she picked it up doubtfully, but finally put it down, still ringing intermittently, and hurried into the kitchen. She put a second bottle of ginger ale on the ice, brought a hammered brass tray and two glasses from the butler's pantry, then substituted a less ostentatious bamboo tray, hesitated, and then put them all away again.

Now she went to her own room, turned on an unbecoming but searchingly clear toplight, and frowned at herself in the mirror, jerked out her hairpins, shook out her soft hair, and brushed and pulled at it with unsteady hands. In spite of them, the pale gold braids, rearranged, looked almost as well as before, if no better, and the heightened colour in her cheeks was charming. From a corner of her glove-case she produced the two cosmetics then in favour with the younger set in Green River, burnt matches, and a bit of scarlet ribbon, which made an excellent substitute for rouge if you moistened it. The ribbon was an unhealthy red, and looked peculiarly so to-night. Judith dropped it impulsively into her wastebasket, but experimented with the matches.

She made both her delicately shaded eyebrows an even splotchy black, admired the result, then suddenly rubbed it off, turned away from the mirror without a backward glance, and ran down into the hall. The clock was just striking ten.

Judith paused for one breathless minute at the library door, pressing both hands against her heart, then she went into the firelit room and made the last and most important of her preparations. She switched on the lights, toplights and sidelights and reading-lamp, all of them, went to the middle one of the three front windows, crushed the curtains back, and raised both shades high to the top, so that the light in the room looked out at the street from this window from sill to ceiling. Judith slipped quickly out of range of the window, dropped down on one of the cushions by the fire, and waited.

She had fluttered through her little hurry of preparation excitedly, but now there was evidence of deeper excitement about the tense quiet of her, huddled on her cushion, small hands clasping silken knees, and brooding eyes on the fire. There was a dignity about her, too, in spite of her childish pose and a drooping grace that was almost a woman's.

What she was waiting for was slow to come, but she did not seem disturbed by that. The hands of the clock above her seemed to move with the unbelievable quickness characteristic of clock hands when there is no other activity in the room, and she observed them calmly. Soon they pointed to the quarter hour, they passed it. She looked faintly worried then. The telephone rang again; she pressed her hands over her ears and shut her eyes tight, and did not answer. The stick on the fire burned low and she did not replace it. It parted and fell from the andirons with a dull noise that echoed loudly through the empty room. Judith started and jumped up, her eyes hard and bright, her hands tightly clenched.

She eyed the clock threateningly, as if it were personally responsible for whatever disappointment she might be feeling, and she were daring it not to strike. It struck half-past ten in spite of her. Judith's mouth trembled childishly, and tears started to her eyes. They did not fall. Footsteps sounded outside. They turned into the drive. Judith stood on tiptoe and peeped at herself in the mantel mirror—her flushed cheeks, tumbled hair, and sparkling eyes. The steps crossed the porch, and she ran to the door and threw it open—the length of the chain, and no wider. She did not unbar the chain. On the threshold, with a substantial box of Belle Isle under his arm, stood Mr. Willard Nash.

Judith regarded Mr. Nash and his Belle Isle with disfavour.

"You can't come in," she said.

Mr. Nash, who had been stooping to flick some dust from his boots, straightened guiltily. "Why?"

"It's too late."

"I've got to see you."

"You do see me." A white dress, a face almost as white, and big, dark eyes were all he could see, but it seemed to be enough. He inserted a square-toed boot cautiously in the opening of the door.

"I want to see you about something."

"What?"

"A new comic song for the quartette. They won't let us do 'Amos Moss' at the Lyceum concert. That part about the red shirt is vulgar. The new one's close harmony. It will show off Murph's voice."

"It's too late now. Go home, Willard."

"But I brought you this."

"Go home and eat it," suggested Judith.

Willard turned scarlet, swung round, then changed his mind and inserted his foot in the crack of the door again, this time with a purposeful air. He was to develop into the type of man to whom an unpropitious time and place are an irresistible temptation to demand a show-down. It is a type that goes far, though it is not essentially popular. Judith sighed, then resigned herself.

"Judy, I don't make you out."

"You don't have to."

"I do." Willard's voice was impressive, as even a fat boy's can be when he is in the grip of fate and conscious of it. "I do."

"I'm sorry, Willard, dear," murmured Judith, with disarming sweetness, but he was not to be turned from his purpose.

"Judy, are you going with me or not?"

"Going with you?"

"Don't be a snob. What else can I call it but going with me? I don't know any other way to say it."

"Then don't say it."

"You've got my class pin and I've got yours. I know there isn't anybody else. You let me call and take you places, but you won't let me——"

"What?"

Willard looked sheepishly down at his boots, then bravely up at Judith. "Put my arm round you at picnics. Kiss you good-night."

Judith cut short this catalogue crisply.

"Spoon?"

This word was forbidden in the upper circles of the Green River younger set, and Willard looked pained, but collected himself.

"We are the same as engaged," he insisted sturdily.

He had forced an issue at last, but Judith evaded it, laughing softly in the dark.

"Oh, are we?"

"Aren't we?"

"How do you know there isn't anybody else?"

"Well, you won't look at Ed, and Murph don't count." Willard made this pronouncement lightly, though the adamantine rules and impassable barriers of a whole social order were embodied in it. "Murph that you're so thick with, all of a sudden. He's a bully fellow, all right, next captain of the team, probably. Good thing he's broken into the crowd a little way. Too bad he's Irish. Murph don't count."

"No—no!" A sudden and poignant sweetness thrilled in Judith's voice. The tenor of the Green River High School quartette, not ordinarily sensitive to variations of tone in the voices of others, could not ignore it. The change had disturbed him vaguely. It seemed to call for some comment.

"Judy, you look great to-night.... I'd do anything for you."

"Then go home, Willard."

"You haven't answered my question."

"What question?"

"Don't tease."

"I honestly don't know."

"You don't hear one word I'm saying to you."

Judith laughed guiltily. "Then what makes you talk to me?"

"Judith—are we the same as engaged?"

Judith hesitated. "Kissing each other good-night—and all that—is silly. I don't want to. Only sometimes I want to, and then afterward I'm ashamed, and can't understand why. Willard, I don't want to grow up. I don't ever want to. I want things to stay just the way they are. They are—lovely. Oh, Willard——"

She stopped, with tears in her eyes. There had been a real appeal in his earnest young voice, and she had done her best to answer it, painfully thinking out loud, with her heart in her words, making him an authentic confidence. But the confidence was off the point, and he ignored it, pursuing his subject with the concentration which will keep his sex the stronger one, votes for women or no votes for women.

"Are you the same as engaged to me?"

"Will you go home if I say I am?"

"Are you?"

"There isn't any such thing as being the same as engaged."

"Are you?"

"Yes."

Willard, forgetting himself in the heat of debate, had withdrawn his foot from the door. Judith, narrowly on the watch for this moment, now seized it, shutting him and his Belle Isle outside, and slamming the door in his face. He had gained his point, and would not linger. She heard him ring the bell once or twice in perfunctory protest, then put down his candy on the steps.

"Good-night," he called cheerfully, through the flimsy barrier of the pseudo-Colonial door.

"Good-night, Willard—dear!"

Judith's voice was sweet, but indifferent, and her manner was indifferent, for a young lady who would have seemed, to a literal-minded person, to have materially affected her whole future life by this conversation. She did not watch Willard go. She turned and stood in the library door, smiling absently and humming a little snatch of a waltz tune. It was eleven now, but the hour had ceased to concern her, as if she had been watching the clock for Willard. Presently, as if she really had, she tossed the cushions back on the couch, drew the shades over the window, turned off the lights, and disappeared upstairs. Muffled sounds of a methodical but unhurried preparation for bed drifted faintly down, one last ripple of song, and then it was silent there.

It was very still in the library. The stillness of the whole empty house and the moonless night outside seemed to centre there. The dying fire threw out little spurts of flame and made wavering shadows on the hearth as if Judith were still crouching there. The embers glowed as red as when she had been fire-gazing, but they did not show what it was she had seen in the fire. They kept her secrets as safely as she kept them herself; as youth must keep its secrets, inarticulate, dumb, because it sees into the heart of the world so deeply that if it were granted speech it would make the world too wise. What Judith had seen in the fire, what had really been in her heart when she talked to Willard in the groping and pitiful language of youth, the only language she had, the fire could not tell, and perhaps Judith did not know.

It was still, and the tiniest sounds were exaggerated: a board creaking at the head of the stairs, and creaking again, the stair-rail creaking, the ghost of a faint little sigh; tiny and intermittent sounds, but the silence became a listening hush because of them: listening harder and harder. At last a sound broke it: the doorbell, rung three times, one long peal and two short.

It was rung faintly, but loud enough. There was a soft hurry of slippered feet down the stairs, and a slender figure, tall in straight-falling draperies, slipped cautiously down and across the hall to the door, stopped and stood leaning with one ear pressed against it, silent and motionless, hardly breathing. The faint signal was repeated. Judith did not move.

There was one more ring, a soft tapping, and then silence. Judith listened for a minute, then whistled softly, a clear little signal, one long and two short, like the signal ring. There was no answer. She pulled frantically at the chain, got it loose, and threw open the door.

A boy was standing on the steps, a stolid, unmoving figure, looming deceptively tall in the dark. He did not step forward or greet her. Judith put out a groping hand and caught at his shoulder.

"Is it you? Oh, I thought you had gone," she said. "I was watching for you upstairs."

"I am going. I can't come in so late."

"No, of course not."

"Then what made you watch for me?"

"I wanted to see if you came."

"Well, I did come, and now I'm going."

"You walked past the house five times."

"Eight." The boy laughed shortly, and Judith's soft laugh echoed his. "Oh, what's the use? I'm going."

"Don't you want to come in?"

"No."

"Then what made you walk past the house?"

"You know well enough."

"I want you to tell me.... You can come in just five minutes if you want to."

"I—you——"

Judith caught her trailing draperies tighter round her, conscious that they were under observation. "It's not a kimono, it's a negligee. And you've seen my hair in braids before, when I played basket-ball. But you needn't come in unless you want to."

"I don't."

"You're not very nice to me. Willard tried to break in. Rena's been trying to get me by 'phone, to stay all night with me. You're not nice to me at all."

His only reply was a kind of tortured groan, but she seemed content with it. Her voice grew compellingly sweet.

"I want to talk to you."

"Go on and talk."

She huddled her draperies closer. "I'm too cold."

"Go to bed then."

"I won't. If you don't come in I shall stand here till mother comes. I'll probably get pneumonia."

This threat evoked no reply.

"Neil," the name was said as only names are said that are new and dear—not often used yet, but often dreamed over, but there was still no answer.

"Neil, I'm awfully cold."

"I don't care."

"Oh, don't you?"

"You know I do. You know—— Oh, Judith, won't you please let me go? I don't want to come in, I tell you."

"But you're coming?"

"Yes."

Yielding abruptly, he stepped into the hall beside her. Judith, suddenly silent, concerned herself conscientiously with the chain.

"Don't stand there like that. I can't fasten this if you do," she said breathlessly.

"Why?"

"Go into the library, and don't light the lights, if you're afraid of pigtails."

"I'm not afraid of—anything."

"Well—I'm not." With a reckless laugh, which made this comprehensive challenge to the world still more comprehensive, she followed him into the firelit room. Slender and straight in soft-falling white, her face flushed and sweet, framed between silvery gold braids, her eyes wide and challenging, she stood looking at him across the hearth.

He faced her awkwardly but bravely, tall in the shadowy room, his face very white, his dark eyes catching the last rays of light from the dying fire. The two did not move or speak till he gave a sudden, shaken laugh.

"You wanted to talk to me—talk." He smiled a quick flashing smile. Judith drew away from him and he followed. "Now you've got me here, can't you shake hands with me?"

"Neil, be careful."

"I'm doing the best I can," he said in a choked voice. "You shouldn't get me here. You shouldn't get me to a house by night that's not open to me by day."

"But it is. Only they'll never let me see you alone, and I like to. I like to talk to you. It makes me feel—comfortable. Isn't it comfortable here?" Judith paused, overcome by an unaccountable difficulty with her breathing, but mastered it. "Comfortable and cozy? Aren't you glad you came in?"

"Comfortable!" He laughed, came two steps nearer to her, and stopped stiffly. Judith, disposing her soft, silky draperies daintily, observed him in silence from a big chair which she had taken possession of rather abruptly, faintly smiling.

"Don't look at me like that," he commanded.

"Like what? Sit down—over there, Neil. Isn't it cozy? Willard's got a new song that——"

"Willard!"

"Don't be cross. We—haven't very much time."

"Judith, where is this getting us? We're not children. Won't you talk straight to me? You ought to leave me alone, or talk straight."

"Please don't be cross."

"Cross!" He came across the hearth and stood close before her, awkward no longer, but splendid with youth in the firelight, his dark eyes shining.

"You knew I'd come, no matter how hard I tried not to?"

"Yes," Judith breathed.

"And you meant to let me in?"

"Oh, yes."

"And you know, if I come, if you let me, I can't help—can't help——"

"What?"

"Oh, Judith!" He dropped on his knees beside her and hid his face. Judith did not touch the dark head that she could see dimly in the shadowy room, outlined against her cloudy white, but she leaned closer to it, her lips parting softly, her eyes wide and strange.

"I don't want you to help it," she breathed.

"But where will it get us?" pleaded a muffled voice.

"I don't care." Her hand hovered over the dark hair, touching it with the wonderful, blended awkwardness and adroitness of first caresses.

He brushed the butterfly touch away and raised his head and looked long at her, slipping both arms round her waist and holding her tight.

"Will you always say that?"

"I don't know."

"Oh, Judith!" Her sweet, flushed face was close above him now, eyes drooping, lips faintly apart, drawn down to his as gently and inevitably as tired eyes close into sleep. "Judith, some day you'll have to care."

"Not yet. Neil, don't talk any more."

"I—can't."

"Then kiss me."



CHAPTER SEVEN

It was winter in Green River.

The town, attracting Colonel Everard to it sixteen years before, newly prosperous, outgrowing its old lumbering days, with the ship-building industry already a thing of the past, with the power in the little river awaiting development, money in the small but thriving bank, and a new spirit everywhere, beyond the control of old leaders, too progressive for a provincial magnate's direction, had been in the interesting and dangerous condition of a woman ready for her next love affair; if the right man comes, she may live happy ever after, but even if the wrong man comes, a flirtation is due. Like a woman again, the town showed the strength of his hold on her in his absence; in winter, when the big, unfriendly house was shuttered and closed, the ladies of the inner circle wore out their summer evening gowns at mild winter gayeties, church socials, Village Improvement Society bridge parties, and the old-fashioned supper parties which the Nashes and Larribees and Saxons still ventured to give.

Humble festivities which he would not have honoured with his presence lacked allurement because he was not in town and staying away from them. Great matters and small hung fire to await his deciding vote, from the list of books to be bought for the library to the chairmanship of the school board. Marking time and waiting for the Colonel to come home; that was what winter meant to most of Green River, but not to Judith Randall. Winter was a charmed time to her; the time when her mother did not care what she did. Freedom was always sweet, but this winter it was sweeter than ever before to Judith.

She was never lonely now. Whispering groups in the dingy corridor of the old schoolhouse, or in that sacred spot, the senior's corner, a cluster of seats in the northwest corner of the assembly-room devoted by tradition to secret conclaves, though not distinguishable from the rest of the seats in the room to uninitiated eyes, drew her in without question, slipping intimate arms round her waist.

Attempts at informal gatherings in the Randall drawing-room were failures, chilled by brief but devastating invasions of Mrs. Randall with a too polite manner and disapproving eyes. But wherever the crowd drifted after school hours, Judith drifted, too, or was summoned by telephone, by imperative messages, vague, and of infinite possibilities:

"Judy, this is Ed. There'll be something doing to-night at our house. Bring your new dance records." Or, as the outer fringe of the younger set, jealously on the watch for snobbishness, but disarmed at last, claimed her diffidently but eagerly, new names at which her mother raised her eyebrows appeared on her dance orders: Joe Garland, whose father kept the fish market, and Abie Stern, Junior, the tailor's son. "Is this Judith Randall? Well, Judith, this is Joe; Joe Garland. I'm getting up a crowd to go skating to-night, and have a rarebit afterward. Would you care to come?"

She was one of the crowd. Natalie, little, sparkling-eyed, and black-haired, with the freshest and readiest of laughs, was more popular, filling her dance orders first and playing the lead in theatricals, and Rena Drew was more prominent, president of the class and the debating society, and the proud owner of the strongest voice in the school quartette, a fine big contralto which wrapped itself round Judith's small, clear soprano at public appearances and nearly extinguished it. Willard, the most eligible of the boys, was Judith's unquestioned property, otherwise nothing distinguished her. She was one of the crowd, and accepted the fact demurely, as if it were a matter of course, not a dream come true. Just as discreetly she conducted her affair with Neil Donovan, captain-elect of the team, literary editor of the school paper, star debater, and in his way a creditable conquest, if she had cared to claim him openly.

"Neil danced three dances with me," confided Natalie, in the hushed whisper appropriate to the confidences that were part of the ceremony of spending the night together after a party, though Natalie's room, with the old-fashioned feather bed, where the two were cuddling together, was on the third story of the rambling white house, and safe out of hearing.

"Neil?"

"Judy, it's too bad to call him Murph and make fun of him. The day he came into the store to solicit ads for the Record father said that boy would go far, if he had half a chance, but no boy had a chance in this town, the way it is run, and no Irish boy ever did have a chance. Well, an Irish boy is just as good as anybody, if they only thought so."

"But they don't."

"Judy, you are horrid about Neil. You always are about any boy I get crushed on. Neil has perfectly beautiful eyes, and he is so sensitive. He kept looking at you all through that last schottische as if you had hurt his feelings. He must have gone home soon after that. I didn't see him again. You didn't dance with him once."

"No."

"Poor boy. And he's up there in the schoolhouse with you, hour after hour, practising quartette stuff, and Willard so crazy about you he can't see, and Rena crazy about Willard——"

"Rena can have Willard."

Miss Ward was not to be diverted. "Neil's father did keep a saloon, but he died when Neil was a baby. His uncle that he lives with keeps a store at the Falls, and that's all right. His aunt took in washing, but his mother never did. Charles Brady does get drunk, but Maggie drives him to it. She's getting awfully wild. She's a perfect beauty, though, and I wish I had her hair. But Charlie's only Neil's second cousin. And Neil is so quiet and pleasant, not like that Brady boy that was in my sister Lutie's crowd; just as fascinating, but Neil doesn't take liberties."

"I'm getting sleepy, Nat."

"Judy, the way I feel about Neil, about Irish boys, is this: we can't go with them afterward, but while they're in school with us, they are just as good as we are, and we ought to give them just as good a time as we can. If you know what I mean."

"I don't. I'm sleepy."

"I'm not. I shan't shut my eyes." But Miss Ward did shut them. "Judy."

"Well?"

"Judy, Abraham Lincoln split rails."

"Cheer up. The Warren Worth Comedy Company is going to play at the Hall next week, and Warren Worth has perfectly beautiful eyes, too."

"Not like Neil's."

"Go to sleep, Nat."

But Judith did not go to sleep until after an hour of staring wide-eyed into the dark, and she did not confide to Natalie or any one what had happened in the intermission after the schottische.

"You act restless," Willard complained to her then. "You hardly looked at me all through the encore."

"I'll look at you now, but get me some water first," she directed, and having disposed of him, slipped out alone into the dim and draughty corridor. Odd Fellows' Building, the centre of various business activities by day, looked deserted and forlorn at night, when the suites of offices were dark and closed, and the hall where they danced, gayly lighted and tenanted, was a little island of brightness in the surrounding dark.

"Neil," Judith called softly, "Neil, where are you? I saw you come out here. I know you're here." The corridor was empty, but several office doors opened on it, and on one of them she saw Charlie Brady's name. She knocked at it. "You're in there. I know you are. Let me in." She tried the door, found it unlocked, and opened it. The room was dark, faintly lighted by the street lamps outside the one uncurtained window, where he sat with his head in his hands, huddled in a discouraged heap over Charlie Brady's desk. Judith came and perched on it triumphantly.

"Running away?" she said.

"It's all I'm good for."

"Look at me."

"I thought you hadn't any dances free."

"I haven't. This is Willard's."

"Go back to Willard.... What did you come here for?"

"I don't know."

"Don't you?" He looked up now, with magic in his eyes and voice, the strange magic that came and went, and when it left him Judith could never believe it would come again. But it was here. With a little sigh she slipped off the desk and into the arms he held out for her, closing her eyes.

"I didn't want to dance with you," she whispered; "not with all those lights, and before those people."

"No, dear."

"I can't stay very long. They'd miss me."

"I'll let you go when you want to."

"I don't want to. I feel so comfortable—all sleepy, but so wide-awake. I never want to go."

Judith, remembering this moment until she carried it into her dreams with her, could not have shared it with Natalie. It was a dream already, to be wondered at and forgotten by daylight, as she stared across the schoolroom at Neil, not a romantic figure at all with his ill-fitting suit and his tumbled hair; forgotten until the next moment like it came—next in a lengthening series of dream pictures, of moonlight and candlelight and faintly heard music, a secret too sweet to share, a hidden treasure of dreams.

Certain pictures stood out clearest. In one, she was skating with Neil. Willard was giving a chowder party at the Hiawatha Club. This imposing name belonged to a rough one-room camp with a kitchen in a lean-to and a row of bunks in the loft above, and a giant chimney, with a crackling blaze of fire to combat the bleakness of the view through the uncurtained windows—Mirror Lake. It was a failure as a mirror that day, veiled with snow, and the white birches fringing it showed bare and cold among the warm green of spruce and pine.

The camp was built and owned and the canoes and iceboats kept in repair in the boathouse, and the cook maintained and replaced when he left from loneliness, all by a syndicate with Judge Saxon as president. Forming it was one of the last independent social activities of the town before the Colonel took charge.

It was bad ice-boating to-day. The wind was fitful, and the boat, a graceful and winged thing in full flight, dragged heavily along, looking the clumsy makeshift box of unpainted boards that it was. It was a day to be towed along on your skates with one hand on the boat. Judith and Neil had tired of this and fallen behind.

Close together, but not taking hands, they swung slowly through the unpeopled emptiness, leaving a tiny scattering of tracks behind, the blue-white ice firm under their feet through a light film of snow. The ice-boat was out of sight, the sprightly and unexpurgated ballad of "Amos Moss," rendered in the closest of close harmony, could be heard no longer, and a heavy silence hung over the lake. The camp lay far behind them, a vanishing speck.

"Neil, take me back," Judith directed suddenly.

"Not yet."

"Please. I want some pop-corn.... Neil, I don't like you. You won't talk. You're queer to-day."

He did not answer. They cut through the ice in silence. It was rougher here. They were near the north end of the lake. There was open water there to-day, black water into which a boat might crash and go down; it made the water under them seem nearer to Judith, black water with only the floor of ice between. She shivered, and Neil broke the silence abruptly, his eyes still straight ahead.

"Judith."

"Oh, you can talk then?"

"Judith—do you love me?"

"Don't be silly." Judith spoke sharply. Days at the camp were always a trial to her. The crowd, bunched together in a big hay-rack mounted on runners, started out noisy and gay, like a party of children, singing, groping for apples in the straw, and playing children's games. But at night, slipping home under the moon to a tinkle of sleigh-bells, covered with rugs two by two, a change would take place: arms would slip around waists that yielded after perfunctory protest; in the dark of the woods there would be significant whispering and more significant silences; Willard would be unmanageable. Judith saw this with alien eyes because of Neil, and dreaded it. This that was between them was so much more beautiful, not love-making, not real love, only a strange, white dream.

"You don't, then? You don't love me?"

"We're too young."

He did not argue the point. His silence had made her lonely before, now it frightened her. She slipped a hand into his, warm through its clumsy glove.

"Cross hands. Don't you want to?"

"No."

"But I want to. I'm tired. How limp your hand feels. Hold my hands tighter. Neil——"

"What?"

"You don't mind—what I said just now?"

"What did you say?"

"That about not loving you."

"That?" He laughed a bitter, lonely sort of laugh, as if she were talking about something that happened a long time ago. "You had to say it. It's true. I knew it well enough. I just thought I'd ask you."

"Do you want me to very much—want me to love you?"

"Don't talk any more about it."

"Neil, suppose I should marry Willard?"

"I suppose you will."

"You won't mind too much?"

"What call would I have to mind? Who am I? What am I?"

He laughed again, the same hard and bitter laugh, and struck out faster, gripping her hands hard, so that it hurt, but looking away from her across the dead, even white of the trackless snow. There was a pain not to be comforted or reached in his beautiful eyes. It had nothing to do with her.

"Neil, wouldn't you care at all?" she said jealously.

"Care?"

"If I married Willard?"

"Oh, yes."

"Neil, do you love me?"

He did not answer or seem to hear, and now Judith gave up asking questions. Carried along at his side in silence, she listened to the muffled creak of the skates on the snow-covered ice, hushed by the steady and sleepy sound of it, half closing her eyes. His left arm was behind her shoulders now, to support her, and she could feel it there, warm and strong. Breathing when he breathed, her heart beating in time with his, swinging far to right and left, tense with the stroke or yielding deliciously in the recovery, caught in the rhythm of it as if some force outside them both were carrying them on like one, and not two, and would never let them go, Judith yet felt far away from him.

She was alone in the heart of a snow-covered world, but she was growing content to be alone. She looked up at his white, set face with wide and fearless eyes, while the lure of unexplored and unseen ice invited them all around, and the gray and brooding sky shut them in closer and closer.

"Neil," she said softly, not caring now whether he answered or heard, "I wish we needn't ever go back. I love to-day."

Not long after this Judith and Neil went snow-shoeing one Saturday afternoon by special appointment, an epoch-making event for them. Judith did not often walk with him or take him driving when the sleigh was entrusted to her. She was not often seen with him. With quartette practice and committee work for the dramatic club and other official pretexts for the time they spent together, Willard was not jealous yet, though the winter was almost over, and the treasury of dreams was filling fast.

But this time she made an engagement with Neil as openly as if he were Willard, while Natalie listened jealously. She started with him openly from the front door, with her mother's disapproving eyes upon them from the library window, and Neil proudly carrying her snowshoes, all unconscious of the critical eyes. The afternoon began well, but no afternoon with Neil could be counted upon to go as it began. Two hours later, when they emerged from the Everard woods into the Colonel's snow-covered rose garden, they had quarrelled about half a dozen unrelated subjects, all equally unimportant in themselves, but suddenly important to Neil, who now found further matter for debate.

"What did you bring me in here for?"

"Didn't you know I was?"

"How should I know? I'm no friend of Everard's. I don't know my way through his grounds."

"What makes you call him Everard, without any Colonel or Mr.? It sounds so—common."

"It's good enough for me. Here, I don't want to go near his house. I hate the sight of it."

"But you can't go back by the path. It's too broken up." Judith plunged into the dismantled rose arbour. "Come on, if you don't want to see the house, take my hand and shut your eyes."

"That's what Green River does," Neil muttered darkly, "shuts its eyes." But he followed her.

"The Red Etin's castle," Judith announced; "you know, in the fairy tale:

"The Red Etin of Ireland, He lived in Ballygan. He stole King Malcolm's daughter, The pride of fair Scotlan'. 'Tis said there's one predestinate To be his mortal foe——

Well, you talk as if the Colonel were the Red Etin, poor dear. Oh, Neil, look!"

Sinister enough, looming turreted and tall against a background of winter woods, its windows, unshuttered still, since the last of the Colonel's week-end parties, and curtainless, catching the slanting rays of the afternoon sun and glaring malignantly, the house confronted them across the drifted lawn.

In the woods that circled the house, denuded of undergrowth, seeming always to be edging forlornly closer to the upstanding edifice for comfort because it was barren and unfriendly, too, the new-fallen snow lay shadowy and soft, clothing the barrenness with grace. Giant pine and spruce that had survived his invasion stood up proud and green under the crown of snow that lay lightly upon them, as it had lain long ago, before the Colonel came. And between woods and house, erasing all trace of tortuous landscape gardening, flower-bed and border and path, as if it had never been, lay a splendid, softly shining sweep of blue-white snow. The Colonel's unbidden guests forgot their quarrel and plunged eagerly across the white expanse.

"Catch me," Judith called, but it was Neil, snatching off her toboggan cap by its impudent tassel, who had to be caught. It was heavy and breath-taking work on the broad, old-fashioned snowshoes which she managed with clumsy grace. Judith, short-skirted and trim in fleecy white sweater, collar rolled high to the tips of small, pink ears, blond curls blowing in the wind, pursued ardently. Neil evaded her like a lean and darting shadow, hands deep in the pockets of his old gray sweater, cap low over his brooding eyes.

Under the unrelenting glare of the Colonel's windows, and across the deserted grandeur of his lawn, the two small and dishevelled figures dodged and doubled and retreated, only to grapple and trip each other up at last at the foot of the veranda steps, and collapse there, breathless and laughing. But their laughter died quickly, and Judith, pulling the recovered cap over her wind-tossed curls, watched the brooding gloom come back into Neil's eyes as he settled into a sulky heap on the step below her.

Her quarrels with Neil were as strange as her beautiful hours with him, fed by black undercurrents of feeling that swept and surprised her, flaming up suddenly like banked fires. She was hotly angry with him now.

"Neil, I heard what you said about Green River shutting its eyes. It was foolish."

"I'd say it to his face." Neil flashed a black look at the bland and elegant drawing-room windows, as if he could talk to the Colonel through them. "I've got worse than that to say to Everard."

"Then say it to me. Don't hint. I'm tired of hearing you. You're as bad as Norah."

"You wouldn't understand."

That is the irresistible challenge to any woman. Judith's eyes kindled. Neil slouched lower on the steps, dropping his head in his hands. "Everard," he threw out presently, "has bought the Hiawatha Club Camp."

"I don't believe it."

"The club was in debt. That's a bad thing for a club or a man to be, if the Colonel knows it. And it's a worse thing for a woman."

"What do you mean?"

He did not explain or raise his head. "I've got a job for the summer vacation," he said presently.

"Already? Fine."

"Oh, fine. In the fish market—tend store, drive the cart. And I'm fired from the Record, Judith."

"Fired?"

"They're going to take on one more man, and pay him real money."

"But you've got the Green River Jottings to do for the Wells Clarion."

"And I may get two dollars a month out of it."

"Did you see Judge Saxon again?"

"Last week."

"Why didn't you tell me what he said?"

"I told you what he would say."

"Oh, Neil!"

"The Judge hates to say no, that's why he took time to think it over. He'd be a bigger man if he didn't hate to say no. He was right to say no to me."

"Then I wouldn't admit it."

"What's it worth to read law in a country law office? The time for that's past. He's right. And suppose he took me on, what would it do for me? Look at Charlie. Doing hack work and dirty work to pay the rent of a place to drink himself to death in. He's got brains enough. He knows law enough. He's slaved and starved and got ready for his chance, and his chance don't come. Why? Because he's Charlie Brady. Well I'm Neil Donovan. I'm Irish, too, what they called me the first time I saw you—a paddy."

"That's not the Colonel's fault."

"Who do you think gets the Record job?"

Judith shook her blond head, disdaining to answer, a gathering storm in her eyes.

"Chet Gaynor—Mr. J. Chester Gaynor. Lil Burr's brother. Her prize brother, the one that's been fired from three prep schools. Everard got him a scholarship at the last one."

"Why not? He ought to help his friends. He's a kind man and lots of fun. It's not his fault if you don't get on. It's your own fault. You don't have to work in a fish market if you don't want to, or sit there and sneer at a man who doesn't care what you think of him. Abraham Lincoln split rails——"

Judith stopped, amazed. Quite abruptly Neil had ceased to sit on the steps and sneer. He was on his feet, hands clenched, thin body tense and dangerous, face dead white and eyes blazing, as Judith had never seen him before, or only once before, too angry for words, but not needing them.

"Neil, do you really hate him? Hate him like that? I never thought you meant it. But why—what has he done?"

"Care what I think? If I was any one else—your fool of a Willard—any one in this town but me, I'd make him care."

"He's done nothing wrong. Neil, don't. Your eyes look all queer. You're frightening me."

"No, he's done nothing wrong, nothing you could get him for. He's too careful. He plays favourites. He fools women. He locks the door to every chance to get on in this town and he sells the keys. He's got his hand on the neck of the town, and he's shutting it tighter and tighter. That's all he does. That's all Everard does."

"You can't prove it."

"He takes good care I can't."

"You can't prove a word of it."

"Your father could."

"He's kind to father. He's kind to me."

"You talk like a child."

"Well, you talk like my mother's cook.... Oh, Neil, I didn't mean to say that. Forgive me. Where are you going? I didn't mean to say it."

"Let me go."

"You're hurting me."

"I hate you! You're one of them—one of the Everard crowd. I hate you, too!"

"What are you going to do?" Her short, panting struggle with him over, her wrists smarting from the backward twist that had broken her hold on him, she leaned against the veranda rail breathless and stared with fascinated eyes. When this quarrel had gone the way of their other quarrels, atoned for by inarticulate words of infinite meaning, justified by the keen delight of reconciling kisses, Judith was to keep one picture from it: Neil as she saw him then, standing over her white-faced and angry, ragged and splendid, Neil as she had seen him once before.

"May-night!" she cried. "You look the way you did that May-night. I'm afraid of you."

"Everard!" He turned from her, and looking at the windows again as if the Colonel were behind him, swung back his arm, and sent it crashing through the glass of the nearest one—once and a second time. "Oh, you don't want me to call him Everard. Colonel Everard!"

"Neil, I'm afraid."

He looked at the fragments of broken glass and at Judith scornfully, but the angry light was fading out of his eyes already, the magic light; against her will she was sorry to see it go.

"Are you hurt? Did you hurt your hand?"

"What do you care if I did? Don't be afraid, Judy. He can pay for a pane of glass or two. He wouldn't care if I burned his house down. Nobody cares what I do. I'm a paddy."

Awkward, suddenly conscious of his snowshoes, he shuffled across the matched boards of the Colonel's veranda and down the steps, turning there for a farewell word:

"I'm going. Don't cry. I'm not worth it. I'm a paddy, from Paddy Lane."

Dream pictures, pleasant or sad, making her cheeks burn in the dark, or little secret smiles come when Judith recalled them. Some lived in her heart and some faded. Judith did not choose or reject them deliberately. They chose or rejected themselves, arranging themselves into an intricate pattern of growing clearness. She did not watch it grow. It was only when it was quite complete that she would see it, but it was growing fast.



CHAPTER EIGHT

"You'll find the coffee pot on the back of the stove. I'm washing out a few things," said Mrs. Donovan.

Though she kept her five little nephews and nieces in dark-patterned dresses or shirts, as the case might be, and encouraged her brother Michael to wear flannel shirts, and even limited her eldest niece, Maggie Brady, clerking in the Green River Dry Goods Emporium now, instead of helping her father in his little store at the Falls, to three white waists a week, she was usually washing out a few things.

The contending odours of damp clothes and rank coffee were as much a part of the Brady kitchen as the dishes stacked in the sink for Neil to wash, or the broken-legged, beautifully grained mahogany card table in the warm corner near the stove, where his school books were piled, a relic of his dead father's prosperous saloon-keeping days, or the view of Larribee's Marsh through the curtainless windows with their torn green shades.

The swampy field was the most improvident part of an improvident purchase—a brown, tumbledown house, wind swept and cold, inconveniently far from the settlement at the Falls and the larger town, heavily mortgaged, and not paid for yet, but early on sunny spring mornings like this the field was beautiful; level and empty and green, the only monotonous thing in that restless stretch of New England country, billowy with little hills, and rugged with clumps of trees. A boy could people the sunlit emptiness of the field with airy creatures of folk-lore, eagerly gleaned in a busy mother's rare story-telling moments, or with Caesar's cohorts marching across it, splendid in the sun, if he had eyes for them. The only boy who ever had regarded the familiar, glinting green of the field with unkindled eyes to-day as he sat finishing his lukewarm breakfast. Yet it was Saturday morning, that magic time, the last Saturday of his last spring vacation, and he had only one more term of school before him.

On this Saturday morning he had an unpleasant errand to do, and he was carefully dressed for it, just as he had been dressed for the Lyceum declamation contest and ball the night before, but not so effectively, for his best black suit showed threadbare in the morning sun, and the shine on his shoes was painstakingly applied, and a heavy, even, blue black, but they needed tapping. His brown eyes had a big, rather hungry look that was unquestionably picturesque, and Miss Natalie Ward would have approved of it, if his mother did not, watching him as she trailed in and out of the room.

"Making out all right? Don't hurry," she said.

"I'm in no hurry to get there," agreed her son.

"He won't say no to you. He never has yet, and he likes you."

"Oh, he won't say no. Nothing new will happen to me in this town; not even that."

Neil's mother paused, balancing her clothes basket against one hip, and deftly favouring the string-mended handle, then put it heavily down, and leaned on the table and looked at him—a small, tired, pretty woman, with gray, far-away eyes that were like no other eyes in Green River, and a smile like Neil's.

"Tired?" she said.

"Dog tired."

"Well, you were out till three."

"One. That was Maggie you heard at three. Where was she?"

"That's her business."

"It's Charlie's, if he's going to marry her."

"It's not yours, then. Never mind Maggie. Your uncle and I had a talk about you last night."

"Why don't you ask to see my dance order?" He made a defensive clutch at his pocket as if she had, and quick colour swept into his cheeks. She watched it, and watched it fade, leaving his face tired and sullen, and too old for its years. "Uncle!"

"He's been like a father to you."

"I've been two sons to him, then. He's worked me like two. If he grudges the time I take off, I can make it up to him. There's been little enough of it, and there'll be little more, and there's been little enough enjoyment in it, and I'm not ashamed of it. Why don't he spy on his own daughter, if he's curious? Why——" This outburst ended as suddenly as it began, in a short, sullen laugh as he pushed his empty cup away. "Dan thinks he can land something for me with the telephone company. I couldn't send money home at first, but I'd be off your hands. Tell that to Uncle."

"Would you be with Dan, in Wells?"

"Somewhere outside Wells. It won't be too gay. You needn't be afraid I'll go to too many dances."

"Don't glare at me. I'm not your uncle."

"Sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me."

"Don't you?"

He flushed, laughed, and ignored the question, producing a small box and offering it. "I got that last night. Don't wipe your hands. They're good enough to handle it wet." A gold medal glittered in her hand. He observed it without enthusiasm, and noticing that, his mother shut the box abruptly.

"Neil, that's the first prize."

"Looks like it. I spoke the Gettysburg address, and they always fall for that. Good-bye, I'm off."

"Neil, come back here."

He swung round with his cap doubled under his arm, and stood before her, helpless and sullen, hedged about with that sudden dignity which no woman creature can break through, but seeming to derive no comfort from it. Painful colour mounted to her cheeks, as if the effort of keeping him there was all she could manage without the effort of opening delicate subjects.

"Neil, I'm worried about you."

"Why? Are you afraid I'll marry beneath me? I won't marry without your consent. It's not being done."

"You got three dollars from the Clarion last week."

"Are you afraid I'll try to support a wife on it?"

"It's the most you've made from them. Why weren't you proud of it? Why aren't you proud of this prize? A year ago you'd have had me up at one to speak your piece to me. There's no life in you, and no pride, and I know why."

"Me with so much to be proud of."

"You're good enough for any girl, but——"

"Do you think I don't know my place, with the whole town teaching it to me going on eighteen years? I've got no false hopes, and I shan't lose my head over any girl. Let me be."

"It's not the town that's taught you your place, it's——"

"Don't you say her name."

"—empty headed and overdressed."

"Go on. Judith Randall don't care what you think of her."

"Can't you even get up enough spirit to stand up for her? You that thought you had your fortune all but made when you got the chickens paid for, and followed me round the house, telling me how you'd run the town? You that could tell what was wrong with the Record editorials, if you couldn't pay for a year's subscription to the paper? You——"

"Yes, I come from one of the five lines in Ireland what have a right to the O', but you never tell me that unless you've got something else to tell me that you're afraid to tell. What is it this time?"

"You come of Irish kings."

"What did Uncle say last night?"

"Well, he's getting to be an old man."

"What did he say?"

His mother did not reply. She avoided his eyes, and made no further criticism of him, or of a young lady who was no doubt as indifferent to her criticisms as Neil said, since she did not recognize Mrs. Donovan on the street.

"Uncle," Neil decided deliberately, "wants me to help in the store. I can't go to Wells."

"He can't get on alone now Maggie's gone. We need your board money to run the house at all. Dan was wild to get away from Green River, but in two years he's got no farther than Wells, and ten dollars a week. I know we ought to leave you free to start yourself, if we can't give you a start, but——"

"Is that all you want to tell me?"

She put out an unaccustomed arm and pulled him awkwardly close. He came obediently, and patted her shoulder stiffly but did not kiss her. "I know what this means," she asserted, and showed a rapidly forming intention of crying on his shoulder. "It hurts me like it does you."



"It don't hurt me. I ought to have seen it myself. I ought not to have planned to go. It's all right, mother. Is that all?"

"All? It's enough. I was awake half the night planning to break it to you."

"You broke it all right. I'll be going." He shook out his crushed cap, and adjusted it with dignity, looking at her calmly out of impenetrable eyes, like a young prince ending an audience, with more power behind him than he knew, kissed her gravely on the cheek with cool young lips, and opened the door, and walked off into the sunshine.

"It's the girl," said his mother, but not until the door had closed behind him. "No girl is good enough to do what she's done to you." Then she selected the frilliest of Maggie's blouses, which had dried while she talked, and spread it on the ironing table to sprinkle again.

Neil did not look like a young man crossed in love, or a young man with his future wrecked by a word. He did not give a backward glance to the little brown house with the sun on its many-paned windows, or seem to hear the children's voices from the old barn behind the house—the favourite refuge of the little Bradys when they were banished from the kitchen—that echoed after him in the clear morning air, shrill and then fainter as he left the place behind.

He had settled into his usual pace for this familiar walk—a steady stride that you could fit the unmanageable parts of a Latin verb to the rhythm of, or the refractory words of a song; but it was not a usual day. It was the first warm day of that April, warmer already, with the goading urge of spring in the softening air that frets and troubles with new desires and a sense of unfitness for them at once, and will not let you be. The road, fringed with scattering trees, and wind-swept and bleak on winter days, was golden with new sunlight, spongy underfoot, but drying under your eyes in the morning sun. The boy's brooding face did not change as he walked, but his shoulders straightened themselves, and lost their patient look, and his lean young body gave itself more gayly to the swing of his pace and looked strong and free, alive with the unconscious strength of youth that must be caught and harnessed to make the wheels of the world go round before it can be taught what its purpose is.

Whether it troubled him or not—his face did not tell—all that his mother had hinted was wrong with his world, and more. No outsider had ever won a place like Neil's in Green River High School society so far as the unwritten history of it recorded. Charlie Brady in his time, and Dan after him, had been extra men at big dances, hard worked and patronized in school entertainments, more intimate with the boys than the girls. Charlie, deep in a secret love affair with Lil Gaynor, had still called her Miss in public, and treated her as respectfully as he did now that the affair was forgotten and she was Mrs. Burr and one of the Everard circle. Charlie and Dan had only looked over impassable barriers. Neil had been really inside—included in small, intimate parties, like week-ends at Camp Hiawatha, openly favoured by Natalie, if not Judith—inside and he would soon be shut out.

There were new signs of it every day. The long, friendly winter, when he had been safe in that intimate fellowship, was over. The girls were planning their gowns for college commencement dances. Willard came back from a week-end at the state university pledged to a fraternity there and refusing to discuss minor subjects. God-like creatures in amazing neckties condescended to visit him, and Natalie was beginning to collect fraternity pins. Rena and Ed were engaged, and under the impression that it was a secret, and a place was being made for Ed in the bank. In one way or another, the world was opening to all of them, and closing to Neil.

And with the spring, the Everards had come back to Green River. The big, over-decorated house had not been open a week, but already they pervaded the town. Their cars whirled through the splashing spring streets, and ladies not upon Mrs. Everard's calling list peered at the passengers to see who was in her favour. The Colonel was turning the Hiawatha Club into a private camp, and closing it to the town, but nobody protested much. He was ordering a complete set of slip covers from the furniture department of Ward's Emporium, and the daring group of prominent business men who ventured to assail the Colonel's political views and private morals sometimes in the little room at the rear of the store lacked support from Ward. Neil had the run of the store and hung about and listened, but never contributed. Whether these criticisms were justified or not, the Everards were back again.

Judith had given up the Lyceum dance for the first of the Everard dinners the night before. It was three days since Neil had seen her, and he was to see her to-day, but he was showing no impatience for the meeting. The end of the world, not the beginning of it, that was what spring would mean to him, and that is a graver catastrophe at eighteen than at eighty. The boy who was facing it had passed the outlying straggle of houses, and had come to the edge of the town, and to the end of the long, hilly street that led down past the court-house, straight into Post Office Square, the heart of the town. It was still empty of traffic at ten, and looked sunny and empty and clean, wide-awake for the day. He took his hands out of his pockets, stopped whistling "Amos Moss," and hurried down Court-house Hill, stepping in time to the tune of it.

A mud-splashed Ford clattered down Main Street, and drew up in front of the post-office as Neil reached it with a flourish that would have done credit to a more elegant equipage than this second-hand one of the Nashes. Two elegant young gentlemen, week-end guests of Willard's and duly presented to Neil the night before, ignored his existence, perusing a gaudily covered series of topical songs with exaggerated attention on the rear seat of the car, but Willard greeted him exuberantly:

"Ah, there, Murph. You don't look like the morning after. Sorry I haven't got room for you. We've got other plans. We love the ladies."

"I'm tied up, anyway. So long."

Willard's tone was too patronizing, but he was not to blame, for the days when they would exchange intimate greetings at all were numbered. As Neil left them one of the elegant guests demanded audibly:

"Who's your friend?"

Neil flushed but did not look back. He had an errand to do in the few minutes before his appointment with Judge Saxon. He crossed the street to Ward's store.

Ward's Dry Goods Emporium, three stores in one, and literally three stores bought out one by one, and joined by connecting doors, though they could never be united in their style of architecture, was rather dark and chaotic inside, though a brave showing of plate glass across the front advertised its prosperity. Luther Ward himself, in his shirt sleeves, was looking over a tray of soiled, pale-coloured spats, assisted by a tall, full-bodied girl with a sweet, sulky mouth, and a towering mass of blue-black hair.

"Hello, Donovan, what's new?" he said, with only a shade more condescension than Willard, and distinctly more friendliness.

"Nothing, sir," said Neil with conviction.

"You want to talk to Maggie, here. I won't intrude on a family quarrel," said Mr. Ward, and chuckling heartily at his own mild joke, as he generally did, and few others did, disappeared into the furniture department, the central one of the three stores, and his favourite. The two cousins regarded each other across the tray of spats as if the family quarrel were not a joke, but an unpleasant reality.

"You can't come here and take up my time," stated Miss Brady.

"Your time is pretty full—evenings, too. Do you know where Charlie was last night?"

"I don't care."

"You ought. He's your second cousin, and goes by the same name as you, if you're not in love with him. He was in Halloran's billiard hall."

"If he can't keep himself out of the gutter, I can't keep him out," stated Miss Brady logically.

"Well, don't push him in," her cousin advised, but the light of battle had died out of his eyes, leaving them listless. "It's nothing to me. I only came to bring you this."

He produced something from an inner pocket and tossed it on the counter, something wrapped in a twist of newspaper, which parted as the girl bent eagerly over it, something which shone and twinkled alluringly, as she straightened it out with caressing fingers and held it up to the light—a little necklace of rather ornate design and startling colours, crimson stones and green and blue, the gayest of toys.

"Seems to be yours all right."

His cousin, who seemed to have forgotten his existence for one rapt moment, remembered it with a start. "Did you show this to your mother?" she asked sharply.

"Why?"

"Well, she don't like to have me spend my money on imitation jewellery." Miss Brady delivered this very natural explanation haltingly.

"Do you?"

One of the sudden, vivid blushes which had helped to establish her reputation as a beauty overspread Miss Brady's cheek. "I missed it this morning and didn't have time to hunt for it, and I was worried. I don't want to show it to her. It cost a good deal."

"It must have. They say a ruby's the only stone you can't imitate."

"What do you mean?" Miss Brady's cheeks grew still redder. "Why don't you save your big talk for Saxon? You may need it. Why don't you mind your own affairs, and leave mine alone?"

"Leave that on the kitchen floor for mother to find and sweep up in a broken dust-pan, or one of the kids to show to your father?"

"Why not? Haven't I got a right to do what I want with my own money? Haven't I got a right to do what I want with myself? Who are you to dictate to me, with the Randall girl making a fool of you? Why——"

"That will be all." Though Miss Brady's voice had been threatening to make itself heard throughout all the three stores in one, she stopped obediently, looking defiant but frightened, but when her cousin spoke again the ring of authority which had shocked her was gone from his voice.

"Don't be scared. It's nothing to me what you do, and I shan't talk too much. You know me, Mag."

"No, I don't, not lately. You act doped, not half there. I can't make you out. If you think—if you suspect——"

"I don't. It's nothing to me. I'm due at Saxon's. Put your glass beads away before Ward sees them. Good luck to you."

Miss Brady, standing quite still in one of her carefully cultivated, statuesque poses, watched her cousin cross the street and disappear into a narrow and shabbily painted doorway there. Then she took his advice, and producing a red morocco wrist bag from under the counter, shut the necklace into it with a vicious snap, as if she did not derive so much pleasure as before from handling it now.

Her cousin climbed the three flights of stairs to Judge Saxon's office. The stairs were dingy and looked unswept, and a pane of glass in the door of the untenanted suite across the landing from the Judge's was broken. Nothing about the Judge's quarters indicated that he was Colonel Everard's attorney, a big man in the town before the Everard regime, and under it—an unusual combination. His office was shabby outside and in. The lettering on the door, Saxon and Burr, Attorneys-at-Law, looked newer than it was by contrast, and it was still only six months old. Theodore Burr had his delayed junior partnership at last.

The Judge's young client did not pause to collect himself on the worn door-mat, as he had done when he first came here on errands like this. They were an old story to him now, and so were scenes like the one with Maggie, which he had just come through so creditably. He looked quite unruffled by it, calm as people are when they have no troubles to bear—or when they have borne all they can, and are about to find relief in establishing the fact. He knocked and stepped inside.



CHAPTER NINE

A fire in the air-tight stove in the corner had taken the early morning chill from the room and been permitted to burn out, now that the morning sun came in warm through the dusty windows, but the room was still close and cloudy with wood smoke. At a battered, roll-topped desk in the sunniest window Mr. Theodore Burr was struggling with the eccentricities of an ancient Remington, and looking superior to it and to all his surroundings, but the Judge was nowhere to be seen.

Mr. Burr was a very large, very pink young man, with blond hair which would have looked too good to be true on a woman, and near-set, green-blue eyes which managed to look vacant and aggressive at the same time. He was wearing a turquoise-blue tie which accentuated their effectiveness, and he occupied himself ostentatiously with the Remington for quite three minutes before he turned his most vacant and aggressive look upon his client.

"Well, Donovan?" he said.

Mr. Burr's manner was as patronizing as Mr. Ward's with the friendliness left out, but his client was not chilled by it.

"Theodore, where's the Judge?" he asked.

"Mr. Burr." The pink young man turned two shades pinker as he made the correction. "The Judge is engaged."

"I don't believe it."

Mr. Burr laughed unpleasantly and held up his hand. From the other side of a door labelled private—misleadingly, for the Judge's little sanctum, where half the town had the privilege of crowding in and tipping back chairs and smoking, was the nearest approach to a clubroom that the town afforded, now that the Hiawatha Club was no more—muffled voices were faintly audible.

"You can talk to me," said Mr. Burr.

"I can, and I can go away and come back when he's not engaged. He said he'd see me."

"He's changed his mind. He don't want to see you. I know all about your case."

"You've learned a lot in six months."

"Talk like that won't get you anything, Donovan, here or anywhere else," remarked Mr. Burr, reasonably, if somewhat offensively. Admitting it, his client dropped into one of the Judge's big office chairs, and sat there, fingering his cap as he talked, and looking suddenly beaten and tired.

"You're right, Theodore. Well, what's all this you know about my case?"

"Mike Brady sends you here begging when he's ashamed to come himself. It's hard on you, Neil."

"My uncle's too busy to come. Is that all you know?"

"I know what you want to-day, and you can't have it."

"What do I want?"

Mr. Burr's manner had become alarmingly official, but his client continued to smile at him, and to fold and unfold his cap methodically.

"An extension of time on your uncle's mortgage. The principal is due the first of next month. You've kept the Judge waiting twice for the interest, the security is insufficient, the bank holds a first mortgage on the house, and for fourteen months your uncle has made no payment to the Judge whatever."

"Don't rub it in, Theodore."

"This is no laughing matter. Business is business," stated the junior partner importantly.

"More like charity, with the Judge, but Uncle isn't holding him up for much this time. Uncle's getting on his feet. The Judge never expected him to, and I didn't, but the automobiles help. Maggie served tea before she went to Ward's, and he's going on with it. His luck has turned. He's got the money to pay this year's interest and half the back interest that's due, but he wants to keep it and put it into repairs—the roof wants shingling, and if we could fix up the storeroom for a place to serve tea and ice-cream we could double trade. Then, next year——"

"We've heard too much about next year, Donovan."

"Don't get tragic, Theodore. This is a new proposition. I'll go into figures with the Judge and prove it to him—don't want to waste them on you. But he won't be sending good money after bad this time, like he's done too many times. I'm as glad for him as I am for Uncle."

"It can't be done."

"Nonsense, Theodore. I won't wait to see the Judge now, but you tell him——"

"It don't make any difference what I tell him. The Judge has made up his mind, and he won't change it. You can take it from me as well as him. You won't get another dollar of his money, and you won't get another month's extension of time. We're done with you."

"I almost believe you mean that, Theodore."

"As I said, the house is insufficient security, but for the sake of the dignity of the firm we must protect ourselves——"

"I believe you mean it, and the Judge gave you authority to say it."

"We must go through the form of protecting ourselves and——"

His client laughed. "You don't mean the Judge wants to take over the house. That's 'Way Down East stuff. If money's tight with him, we'll pay the interest and manage some way, though I don't see how. But the house would be no good to him if he took it, and he wouldn't take it if it was. I know the Judge. Don't let your imagination get away with you, Theodore."

"I'm sorry for you, Donovan."

"You think he's going to take it?"

"I know he is."

"You mean that," his client decided slowly, "and you've got the Judge's authority for it, too."

"Take it quietly. It's the best way," urged the junior partner helpfully.

"I understand that's your motto, Theodore," said his client, and proceeded to take his advice, sitting quite still in the Judge's big chair, and fixing a clear-seeing but unappreciative gaze upon the immaculate folds of Mr. Burr's turquoise-blue tie. He took the advice too literally. The silence grew oppressive and sinister, and as if he found it so, Mr. Burr broke into a monologue, disjointed, but made up of irreproachable sentiments.

"This is hard on your uncle, Neil, and it's hard on you, but it may be the best thing in the end. He's been hiding behind you too long. A business that can't stand on its own feet deserves to fail. He can start new and start clean. The Judge has been a good friend to you——"

"Don't explain him to me. You don't own him, whoever else does," interrupted the Judge's protege softly.

"What do you mean? If you don't think you're getting a square deal, say so."

"Do you want me to weep on your shoulder, Theodore?"

"The Judge is your friend, and," Mr. Burr added handsomely, "I'm your friend, too."

His client arose briskly, as if encouraged by this. "Theodore, you don't want to tell me what's back of your turning me down?" he asked. "No, I thought not. Well——"

"I'm your friend," repeated Mr. Burr, generously if irrelevantly, and this time without effect. His client had crossed the room without another glance at him, and had his hand on the knob of the Judge's office door. His manner still had the composure which Mr. Burr had advocated, but his face was very pale, ominously pale, and his brown eyes were changed and bright, dangerously bright. To imaginative eyes like Mr. Burr's he must have looked suddenly taller.

Mr. Burr was facing an unmistakable crisis, with no time to wonder how long it had been forming, or why. He hurried after the boy and caught him fiercely if ineffectively by the arm.

"You can't go in there," stated Mr. Burr arbitrarily, all logic deserting him. "You can't. You don't know——"

"Oh, I'm not going to knife the Judge," his client explained kindly. "I'm only going to find out what's back of this."

"Take it quietly," was the ill-chosen sentiment which suggested itself to Mr. Burr. Neil Donovan swung round angrily, and paused to reply to it, with fires which the somewhat negative though offensive personality of the pink young man could never have kindled alight in his brown eyes.

"Quietly? There's been too much of that in this town. I'm sick of it. The only friend I've got who hasn't got one foot in the gutter goes back on me for no reason at all, the first time I ask a favour of him that don't amount to picking his pockets. The only big man in this rotten town who's halfway straight since Everard turned the town rotten begins to act like he wasn't straight. What's back of it? I'm going to know. Get out of my way, Theodore."

"You don't know who's in there."

"I don't care. I'm going to know." Disposing of the hovering and anxious intervention of Mr. Burr, and throwing the door open, he slammed it in the pink young man's perturbed face, and stepped alone out of the sunshine into the Judge's dim little inner office.

The Judge's friendly littered little room was not so inviting in working hours as it was in the hospitable hours of late afternoon. It was like a woman seen in evening dress by daylight. But the boy who had invaded it so hotly unmasked no conspiracy here. The men at the table near the one window, with a pile of official but entirely innocent looking papers between them, had every right to be there. They were the Judge and Colonel Everard.

The great man looked quite undisturbed by the boy's invasion, glancing up at him indifferently from the papers that he was turning over with his finely moulded, delicately used hands; he even looked mildly amused, but the boy turned to him first instinctively, and not to the Judge, who was peering at him with troubled and kindly eyes over the top of his glasses.

"I've got to speak to the Judge. I'm sorry."

He stammered out his half-apology awkwardly enough, but the smouldering fires were still alight in his brown eyes, tragic fires of cowed and rebellious youth. The great man regarded him indifferently for a minute and then turned rather ostentatiously to his papers again.

"Judge, I've got to speak to you alone."

"You can't just now, son."

"I've got to."

"Why?"

The Judge's kind, drawling voice was not quite as usual, and his blue, near-sighted eyes were not; they were wistful and deprecating, and rather tired, a beaten man's eyes, eyes with an irresistible appeal to the race that is vowed to lost causes, this boy's race. The boy stepped instinctively closer.

"I don't blame you, sir, but I've got to understand this and know what's behind it."

"Better go home before you say anything you'll be sorry for, Neil."

"Why did you go back on me?"

"You're taking a sentimental attitude about a business matter. It's natural enough that you should. I'm sorry for you, son."

"Why——"

The Judge drew himself up a shade straighter in his chair, and met the boy's insistent challenge with sudden dignity, kindly but judicial, peculiarly his own, but his flashes of it were not very frequent now.

"Neil," he said deliberately, "I've got nothing to say to you alone. I've got nothing to say to you at all that Mr. Burr hasn't said. Is that quite clear to you?"

It was entirely clear. The Judge had left no room for uncertainty or argument, and the boy did not attempt to argue or even to answer. He stood looking uncertainly down at the Judge, as if for the moment he could not see anything in the room quite distinctly, the Judge's face, with its near-sighted blue eyes and red-gold beard and thinning hair, or Colonel Everard's clear-cut profile.

"Better go," said the Judge gently.

"I'd better go," the boy repeated mechanically, but he did not move.

Colonel Everard put down his papers deliberately, and favoured him with a glance, amused and surprised, as if he had not expected to find him still in the room, and was prepared to forget at once that he was there; a disconcerting sort of glance, but the boy's brown eyes met it gallantly, and cleared as they looked. They grew bright and defiant again, with a little laugh in the depths of them. The ghost of a laugh, too, lurked in the boy's low voice somewhere.

"You're right, Judge. I'll go. I'm wasting my time here," he said, "asking you who's back of what you've done to me—when I know. I won't ask you again, but I'll ask you, I'll ask you both, who's back of everything that's crooked or wrong in this town? Little or big, he's back of it all; straight back of it, or well back of it, hiding his face and pulling the wires. He's to blame for it all, for he's made the town what it is.

"He's got his hand on the neck of the town, and got hold of it tighter, gradual, so nobody saw it and knocked it off; tighter and tighter, squeezing the life out. He never made a gift to the town with one hand that he didn't take it back with the other. What the town gets without him giving it, he won't let it keep. The whole town's got his stamp on it, grafting and lying and putting up a front. The whole town's afraid of him. The Judge here, that's the best man in town, don't dare call his soul his own. Me, I'm afraid of him, too, and the only reason I dare stand up and say to his face what's said behind his back is because I've got nothing to lose. It's him, there——"

"Don't, son," muttered the Judge tardily, unregarded, but Colonel Everard listened courteously, with a faint, amused smile growing rather stiff on his thin lips.

"Him, that's too good to speak to me or look at me, sitting there grinning, and reading fine print, making out not to care, he's back of it all—him, Everard."

The two men, who had heard him out, did not interrupt him now. It was only a passionate jumble of boyish words they had listened to, but behind it, vibrating in his tense voice, was something bigger than he could frame words to express, something that commanded silence; pain forcing its way into speech, long repression broken at last. The dignity of it was about him still, though his brown eyes flashed no more defiance, and he was only a shabby and hopeless boy walking uncertainly to the office door, and fumbling with the handle.

"I'll go out this way," he said. "I've had enough of Theodore. And I've had enough of this place. I'll say good morning, gentlemen."

In a prosaic and too often unsatisfactory world, which is not the stage, no curtain drops to relieve you of the embarrassment of thinking what to say next after a record speech; you have to step out of the limelight, and walk somewhere else. Neil Donovan, emerging from the ancient building which contained Judge Saxon's office into Post-office Square after a brief interval of struggling successfully for self-control in a dusty corridor little suited to such struggles, and not even ensuring the privacy which is wrongly believed to be necessary for them, had one more appointment to keep. He was late for it already. He glanced at the town clock and started off hurriedly to keep it.

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