They sat and waited and in due course of time the boy returned. As he appeared at the gate Sarah, with a strange choking sound in her throat, half rose and then dropped weakly back into her chair. And even to Allison, who had fondly looked forward to the worst, the little suit with the pretty ruffed cuffs was an unbelievable wreck. The coat had been ripped from hem to collar and dangled loose upon either side as the boy advanced toward them; the knees of the trousers were split till the bare skin showed through beneath, and those portions of the fabric which were not encrusted with dirt were liberally o'er-spread with egg.
After one stricken glance at the spectacle Sarah tottered to her feet and retreated none too steadily into the house. But it wasn't the condition of the boy's clothes which held Caleb's gaze. He was watching his face. For as Steve marched across the lawn the dangerous whiteness of the boy's countenance half frightened the man. His lips were a thin streak across a jaw tight clamped and flecked with blood in one corner. And his eyes had the wide-open fixity of a sleep-walker. Steve had reached the top of the steps in his mechanical approach before Caleb spoke. And even then, when he turned, he seemed only half to see the two men who were waiting his coming.
"Well?" faltered Caleb.
The boy stopped short and slowly turned his head. Both men heard that breath, short and harsh, in the moment of silence.
"Just what does this mean?" Caleb attempted again. "Where have you been?"
He hardly recognized the boy's voice.
"I been daown to the city," Steve slurred the words. "I been daown to git Miss Sarah a dozen eggs—and I run into trouble—daown there—a-gittin' 'em!"
"I—I should assume that you had," murmured Caleb. "But you've brought the eggs back with you, or most of them, I see, even though they aren't in particularly edible condition."
That was as long as Allison could endure it; he burst into a fit of laughter which lasted until he was moaning for breath. And Steve, teeth set, waited without moving until the noisy outburst was over.
"You'd better go upstairs and get into your old clothes," Caleb advised him then. "And I'll get you something less—less dangerous to wear before night."
But the boy stood rigid still.
"Will you," he asked, "will you give me another quarter now?"
Allison looked up quickly from wiping his eyes.
"A quarter," echoed Caleb slowly, even while he reached into his pocket and handed the coin to the boy. "Now what do you——Here, where are you going now?"
Steve had turned and was marching down the steps. He paused a minute to explain, however.
"Why, I'm goin' back daown to the city," he grated out. "I'm goin' back after Miss Sarah's eggs!"
And he went and when he returned the creases in the paper bag which held his purchase were as fresh as when it had left the grocer's counter.
"Well I'm—I'm damned!" Allison murmured, after the boy had entered the house. "I am damned! You'll have to bring that youngster over, Cal, and introduce him to the children."
Caleb couldn't help it.
"I told you so!" he said.
That was only a beginning. The next fortnight was filled with more new experiences than either Caleb or his sister would have believed could be crammed into twenty times that duration. And Caleb spent most of his waking hours boasting to the tolerant Allison of new and quite astonishing traits which he found in the boy.
Acting upon Dexter's suggestion the man took Steve across the very next day and presented him to the children who were guests in the big stucco and timber house: Little, shy, transparent-skinned Mary Graves and Garret Devereau and Archibald Wickersham—the Right Honorable Archie. But from the very first, Steve's lack of enthusiasm for their company impressed itself upon Caleb. As a matter of fact, the boy did cross over and join in their games the first day or two, but it was only after Caleb himself had suggested it. And more often than not he would be back again, before an hour had passed, to sit silent and moody, chin in hand, upon the steps, gazing north at the hills. It puzzled Caleb mightily; he laid it to homesickness at the beginning.
Toward Barbara Allison, throughout those days, Steve's bearing was that of frank and undisguised wonder and worship. Whatever they did, no matter what they played at, his eyes rarely left the little girl's bobbed head. For any feat which he performed he invariably turned to her for approbation. And in return for that worship Barbara's treatment of him was truly feminine. He out-ran the other boys as a deer might outrun an ox; he out-leaped them without putting himself to an effort, but he won scant attention or visible admiration from the dark-eyed Barbara. She was far more likely to turn from his hungry eyes to compliment the Honorable Archie upon his clumsy performance with a sweetness that left Steve biting his lips in lack of understanding. More than once it made even Caleb grit his teeth—the little girl's disdainfully tilted chin—and when Steve's reluctance to leave his own yard became an unmistakable thing, he spoke to Sarah about it.
"Maybe I'm prejudiced, blindly," he growled, "but I do believe that there is nothing in the world to equal the absolute and refined cruelty of a woman-child of ten—unless it is that of a woman of twenty or thirty, and on up the scale—when she first finds out that a man cares enough for her so that she can really hurt him! If that Barbara was a boy I'd catch her and switch her—Allison or no Allison!"
At any other time Sarah would have defended her own sex with much asperity; instead, there was something oddly wistful in her answer.
"If it were only the way she treats him," she mused, "I wouldn't mind so much." The sudden outraged glint in her eyes startled Caleb. "That isn't the reason he doesn't want to play with them. They have been laughing at him, Cal; they have all been making fun of him, openly—mocking his speech and—and manners! All of them, that is, save Garry Devereau."
Caleb's face hardened.
"Did he tell you that?" he demanded, surprised.
"Oh, no," Sarah exclaimed. "And you musn't mention it to him. I just gathered it from something he let drop the other day. You know, Cal, he hardly knows one figure from the other, but his reading is truly marvelous. He can read as fluently, as expressively, as you or I can; and one day, after he had been reading aloud for me, I asked him why he didn't talk as—as he read. He didn't know what I meant at first, but he understood the minute I tried to explain.
"'Do you mean I ought to talk in book language?' he asked.
"I told him that was my meaning, and after a time his blessed little face began to go red.
"'Do—do they,' and he nodded over yonder, Cal, 'do they all talk—like books?'
"So you see! And he's been trying ever since to correct his quaint idioms and funny contractions, but it'll take a long time to correct a mental process which is habit with him." Sarah's face grew resentful. "I wish we'd never let him go over there, in the first place. We should have known! For there isn't a look or a whispered comment, which he doesn't catch. And, Cal, I doubt if even I have fathomed the depths of his sensitiveness."
"We'll stop his going," Caleb stated flatly. "We'll keep him away from them." And under his breath he added something which Sarah had never heard him say in her presence.
But it needed no word of Caleb's to keep Steve at home. Without some suggestion to urge him, the latter showed no inclination to leave his own yard; and yet he would sit, too, for hours upon the top step of the veranda, staring in the direction of the stucco lodge and listening to the voices behind the high hedge. More and more often Garry Devereau came over and joined him instead, and together the pair made almost daily trips down to the mills. A quick intimacy had grown up between the two boys—an intimacy which seemed all the stranger to Caleb because of the very contrast between them.
Garret Devereau was two years older in actual age and a half dozen in the matter of knowledge. Already, while still in knickerbockers, he was beginning to show how entirely he was the son of his father. For the older Devereau had grown up from a handsome, dark-skinned, reticent boy into a moody and cynical skeptic who, at the age of thirty, had put the muzzle of his own revolver against his temple and pulled the trigger, because as he phrased it, "he was tired of the game." The skepticism was already there in Garry Devereau's slow smile. And Caleb often felt that the boy's black eyes were looking through and beyond, rather than at him. The bond of mutual understanding which seemed to exist between him and Steve puzzled Caleb; but he was glad of it, for all that. It kept the boy from being left entirely alone.
Later, when he had had weeks and months to ponder it, the outcome of it all seemed only logical to Caleb Hunter. It seemed to him then that he should have foreseen it from the very first. But as it was, when the denouement of which neither he nor Sarah had dreamed did come, it broke with a suddenness that was cataclysmic to both of them.
From the beginning Steve had evinced an insatiable appetite for books; he started in to devour everything upon which he could lay his hands, and the Hunter library was lined with well-stocked cases. But it was the history volumes which drew him most; with a fat tome upon his knees he would sit for hours in a corner upon the floor, his eyes glued to the pages. And one day, two weeks after the occurrence of the eggs, he came to Sarah with a shy question, a book in one hand. After she had caught the drift of his query, Sarah took the volume and found that he had been reading of the fabulous deeds of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. His breathless interest in the subject thrilled and warmed the tiny woman, for more than once she had asserted to her brother that his very bearing was that of a small and sturdy knight of old, and she explained and elaborated upon the printed text far more appealingly than she had had any idea was in her power.
Steve went back to his reading after she had finished, but ever and again that morning his eyes, blank with preoccupation, wandered from the type; ever and again his ears seemed to be straining to catch the echo of childish trebles from the yard beyond the hedge. And after dinner Caleb was astonished when the boy explained, a little awkwardly, that he was going over to Allison's grounds for a while. Allison himself passed Steve in the hedge gap and, with a word of greeting, stopped to shake hands with him gravely. So it came about that they were sitting together, Dexter and Caleb, smoking in silence, when Barbara Allison's first wild scream came shrilling to their ears. They waited, staring at each other until the riotous clamor which rose set them to running across the lawn. But the scene which met Caleb's eyes when he burst through the shrubbery froze him into immobility.
There was a seething pack of children around two writhing figures upon the ground; they were all shrieking in soprano panic—all save Garry Devereau. He, standing a little to one side, was smiling his queer, crooked, handsome smile, while Stephen O'Mara mauled the Honorable Archibald Wickersham with true riverman thoroughness, which meant the infliction of the greatest possible damage in the least possible time. An inscrutable sort of contempt curled his lips when Barbara Allison frantically begged him to rescue the small Britisher from the storm of fists—a man's contempt for another man who does not take his punishment in silence. For the howls of the Honorable Archie were louder and more piercing than the loudest of the hysterical little girls who were watching.
Caleb felt as a man feels who tries to run in a nightmare and cannot make his feet obey the commands of his brain. It was only when Barbara Allison dropped desperately to her knees beside the huddle of arms and legs and straining bodies and began to beat with tight-clenched little hands upon Steve's tousled head, that the power of action returned to him. He fairly leaped forward then, scattering the circle before his weighty rush and, leaning over to get a firm grip upon his collar, jerked Steve upright with one mighty heave. That effort raised the Honorable Archie to his feet, also, for Steve was clamped to his antagonist, or victim, with a bulldog grip.
It grew very quiet when Caleb whirled the boy around and stood peering sternly down into his battle-streaked features. Allison strode quietly up in that moment.
"Well?" Caleb didn't know just how to begin, but his voice was cold. "Well, young man, can you explain just what this means?"
The Honorable Archie limped away a pace or two and, whimpering, fell to rearranging his crumpled raiment—fell to dabbling at a bruised and swollen nose. When he found that there was blood upon his handkerchief he howled again, but the rest of the children waited, appalled, for Steve's answer.
Had the boy burst into bitter expletive at that instant Caleb would not have been so surprised as he was at Steve's reception of his question. The latter looked up, just pushed his long hair back from his forehead with one quick hand; and then smiled, very, very slowly.
"Nuthin'—nuthin' much," he qualified the statement. "Only we was goin' to play King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table! He wanted to be her knight"—an uncomplimentary thumb indicated the Honorable Archie—"and—and so did I." This time his eyes went to Barbara, who was listening, her teeth sunk in her lip. "He wanted to be her knight—an'—an' he ain't got no call to be, because in case of trouble, or anything, he couldn't purtect her! He couldn't fight good enough to take good keer o' her, because I kin fight better. I—I just licked him to prove it!"
And there the matter-of-fact explanation halted.
Caleb never knew just what he had meant to do when he first dragged the boy away from his shrieking rival. But while he stood there, looking down into that glowing face, he realized that he had walked into a situation bigger than any with which he was prepared to cope. Already it had become veritable comedy to the broadly grinning Allison—but it seemed symbolic to Caleb. He sensed how close it lay to tragedy itself; he found himself arguing kindly, in place of the rebuke which he had thought to deliver.
"But in the days when knighthood was in flower, Steve," he explained ponderously, "the—the fair ladies always chose their own knights, didn't they?"
But the question had an entirely unexpected effect upon the boy. For, instead of wiping the smile from the small and wistfully earnest face, it only softened it. Shyly Steve fell to kicking the turf with the toe of his new boot; then his head came up and, flaming red, he squared his shoulders and faced Barbara full. The move was unmistakable—he was just waiting for her to name him the knight of her choice. And, instead, the little girl, her eyes twin shafts of searing scorn, curled her lips at him and fairly spat out the words in her shaking rage.
"You—you—my knight?" she half whispered, "You!" And she turned her back and went, solicitously, toward Archie and his rumpled clothes.
Even Allison stopped smiling, even Devereau forgot his curious amusement, at the livid change which came over Steve's face with that answer which she flung at him. The boy fell away a step before her fierce little visage; he crooked one arm, over the cheek where her fists had beaten the skin pink a moment before. And then her meaning struck him like a blow between the eyes.
Shoulders slumped forward, head hanging low, he wheeled on heel and started for the gap in the hedge. Caleb could not move, nor did Allison, whose wits were quick enough in most things. But Garry Devereau followed and overtook his friend. He did not speak to him; he merely dropped one hand upon his drooping shoulders. And yet the men, had they talked for an hour, could not have conveyed all that there was in that second of contact. For it proved electrical in its effect. Steve whirled again and came marching back, head up now—back to the group which had not moved. Straight up to Barbara he went and faced her once again.
"I wa'n't good enough to be your knight, was I?" he accused her in a hushed and vibrant voice. "I—I don't know enough, ner I can't talk good enough, to be your knight. I ain't good enough fer you! But I'm a-goin' to be—do you hear? I'm a-goin' to be—an' when I am . . . when I am . . . then I'll come back to you!"
This time, rigid as a lance, he disappeared from sight. Caleb stood staring at the ground. Allison stood and stared at the horizon.
And when Barbara finally started, white of face and silent, toward the stucco house, Caleb, too, turned and followed his boy home. It was the first time in his memory that he and Dexter Allison had parted in anger, and at that moment Caleb believed that he hated the man and all that was his!
Steve had gone straight to his room, but one glimpse of his bloodless face had told Sarah too much and too little. After her brother had explained she would not let him go upstairs to the boy.
"It will be better to leave him alone for a while," she said. "It has been coming for days, this thing. I think I knew it would come—but how could we have stopped it, Cal? And you won't believe me, but it's because Barbara Allison cares more for our boy's little finger than she could for a hundred Archie Wickershams that she—she said what she did. Women do those things, and even I, who am a woman, can't tell you why!"
Steve did not come downstairs for supper that night, and when he failed to appear at the breakfast hour, both Caleb and Sarah mounted to his room, fear in their hearts. The bed had not been slept in; the sheets were not even disarranged, but there was a scrap of paper pinned to one pillow-slip. It wasn't written in "book language"—that short message—for it was not his brain, but his heart, which had phrased it:
I'm a-comin' back—I'm comin' back to you, someday when they won't be no need fer you to be ashamed fer me. I'm takin' my new clothes with me because I knowed you would a-wanted me to—and the shoes, too. I'm askin' you to take keer of Ole Samanthy til I come fer her—and Miss Sarah ain't got no call to worry, fer I could always take keer o' myself.
It was signed "Stephen O'Mara."
Sarah's face went white when she had read it through. Her knees weakened under her and she had to sit down.
"Why, Cal—why, Cal, he's—he's gone," she quavered.
And Caleb nodded down into her stricken face.
"Yes—he—he's gone," he breathed.
Sarah swallowed hard. Then two bright tears crept out from under her eyelids and went coursing down her cheeks. She rose and groped her way to her own room.
Caleb found Barbara Allison waiting in the living-room when he, still numb from the shock, went back downstairs. She came up to him and stood a moment, twisting the fingers of one hand within those of the other.
"I want to see Stephen, please, Uncle Cal," she faltered.
Caleb drew a deep and unsteady breath.
"Steve isn't here, Barbara," he said as gently as he could.
The child didn't understand.
"Father sent me over to apologize," she explained slowly. "I'm to tell him that I'm sorry. But I—I want to tell him, too, that if I couldn't have him for my knight—I—I wouldn't ever have any knight at all!"
Caleb felt a tightening at his throat which made speech difficult.
"But Steve has gone away," he managed to gulp.
A shadow came into the big dark eyes lifted to his.
"He'll be back for breakfast, won't he?" she asked, hopefully.
"I'm afraid not, Barbara. I'm afraid now that he may never come back—again."
She didn't understand what he meant at first, so Caleb tried to explain. But when his voice broke and trailed off into a husky whisper there was no further need of explanation. She ran then and threw herself in a passion of tears upon a window-seat in the corner. Caleb found his chair. And after a time he felt a small hand touch his sleeve; he felt a wet cheek pressed tight to his own.
"Oh, don't you feel so badly, too, Uncle Cal," Barbara sobbed. "Please—please! Because he is coming back! He told me he would—he told me he would, himself!"
MY MAN O'MARA
For a week and more Caleb Hunter scoured the surrounding country. He whipped over the hills in every direction, half hopeful that he might overtake the boy who had gone in the night. But none of the farmers on the outlying roads had seen pass their way a little foot traveler such as he described, and after a time even that small hope died.
When Dexter Allison came over the next day, his face far more perturbed than Caleb had ever before seen it by the news which Barbara, in tears, had carried to him, Caleb found that his anger had somehow oozed away during the night. Allison's concern was too genuine to be feigned; and Caleb learned too, that morning, that beneath his neighbor's amusement at the boy there had always been a strain of admiration for his sturdy gravity and more than a bit of wonder at his uncanny knowledge of things which were as sealed books to Dexter.
Together the two men searched for Steve, driving in silence through the country, until they both realized that the search was useless. And at last one day in early fall, Caleb started alone upon his errand into that stretch of timber to the north which the boy himself had vaguely designated as "up-river."
He spent a week in the saddle before he located the cabin of the "Jenkinses" in an isolated clearing upon the main branch of the river. If the journey could have been made cross-country, straight through the wilderness itself, it would have been no more than a ten-mile ride from that cabin to the same huge valley at the headwaters of the east branch, where he and Dexter and the boy had camped only a few days before. But it was a two days' journey around the backbone of that ridge alone, by trail. And even then, when he did locate the "Jenkinses," it took hours of quiet argument before Caleb could convince those shy and suspicious people that his errand was an honest one. Eventually they did come to believe him; they led him, a-foot, another half mile up the timber-fringed stream, to a log cabin set back in the balsams upon a needle carpeted knoll. And they stood and stared in stolid wonder at this portly man in riding breeches and leather puttees, when he finally emerged from that small shack, "Old Tom's" tin box under his arm, and, with lips working strangely, pinned the door shut behind him.
Caleb left in the limp fingers of the head of the Jenkins' household a yellow-tinted note of a denomination which they had not even known existed; he left them half-doubting its genuineness, until later when there came an opportunity to spend it. And Sarah was waiting at the door of the white place on the hill when Caleb wheeled into the yard at dusk, two days later.
"You've found him!" she exclaimed as she glimpsed his face when he entered the hall.
Caleb shook his head, his heart aching at the hunger in her question.
"No, I haven't found him, Sarah," he said gently enough. "But I—I've found out who he is!"
They forgot their supper that night. With heads close together they hung for hours over the ink-smeared sheaf of papers which the tin box yielded up. Most of them were covered with a cramped and misspelled handwriting which they knew must be that of the one whom Steve had called "Old Tom." Some of them were hard to decipher, but their import was very, very clear.
There was one picture—a miniature of a girl, eager of face and wavy of hair. Her relationship to the boy was unmistakable. Sarah found that and wept over it silently, and while she wept Caleb sifted out the remaining loose sheets and came upon a bundle of tax receipts. These puzzled him for a moment, until, at the very bottom of the box he found a folded and legal-looking document. He opened that and then he understood—he understood just how every penny had been spent which Old Tom had been able to earn. After the swiftest of examinations, Caleb refolded the paper and slipped it into his own pocket, without showing it to Sarah at all. Just at that instant he was not sure why he meant to keep its existence to himself, but even then, back in his brain, the reason was there. At length he turned to his sister.
"It's not hard to understand now, is it?" he said. "It's pretty plain now why he had to go. And we, Sarah—we who were going to 'make something of him'—why, we should have known absolutely, without this evidence. They laughed at him; they made fun of him—and there isn't any better blood than flows in that boy's veins! He was Stephen O'Mara's son, and no more brilliant barrister than O'Mara ever addressed a jury of a prisoner's peers and—and broke their very hearts with the simplicity of his pleading."
Sarah folded her thin hands over the woman's picture.
"I like his mother's face," she murmured, faintly. "And I'm jealous of her, Cal! You don't have to remind me of the rest of it, either, for I recall it all. She died, and he—he went all to pieces. They said, at his death, that he was destitute. And when he did follow her—across—they hunted everywhere, didn't they, and never found the boy? Didn't some of the newspapers argue that a servant—a gardener—had stolen him?"
Caleb nodded his head.
"Most of them ridiculed the suggestion, but it was true, just the same. That servant was Old Tom. And the only defense he makes is just one line or so in—in this." Caleb dropped a hand upon the half legible pages. "He says that he wasn't going to let civilization make of the boy's life the wreck which he, poor, queer, honest soul, thought it had made of his father's. And do you know, Sarah, do you know, I can't help but believe that this over-zealous thing which the law would have prosecuted was the best thing he could have done? I'll take these things, now, and lock them in the safe for the boy, until he—until he comes back home!"
But Sarah Hunter kept the picture of Stephen O'Mara's mother separate from the rest; she took it upstairs with her when she went, white and tired-faced, to bed. And it was Sarah's faith which outlasted the years which followed. She never weakened in her belief that some day the boy would come back—she and one other whose faith in his last boyish promise, phrased in bitterness, also endured. For during the next five years there was not a summer which brought Allison into the hills but what the first question of his daughter Barbara, motherless now herself, was of Steve.
"Has—has Stephen come back?" she asked invariably.
At first the query was marked by nothing more than a child's naive eagerness; and later, when it was brought up in a casual, by-the-way fashion, it was, nevertheless, tinged with hope. Five years lengthened into ten, and still Steve did not come. But whenever Barbara asked that question Caleb remembered, as though it had happened only yesterday, that morning when she first appeared to the boy.
He wondered sometimes what Steve's reception of her would be now—if he did come back! The thought supplied many idle hours with food for speculation for Barbara Allison, year by year, had grown into that slender, dark-eyed creature of more than usual beauty whom Caleb had seen, as through the boy's own eyes, in the promise of the years. Caleb had long before given up all hope, but he wondered just the same. And then there came a morning when he didn't have to wonder any more. There came a morning when that self-same scene was staged again by Chance—staged with Caleb for an audience. There came a morning when Stephen O'Mara did return.
More than a few times in those intervening years the Hunter home had been closed. Sarah Hunter developed an uneasy restlessness which would have worried her brother had it not been for the light of wistful expectancy which never left her eyes. She developed what her brother termed a habit of "seeing America first and last, and in the interval between." But he, beneath his jocularity, was glad enough to accompany her upon those rambling journeys which, without itinerary, led them from coast to coast and he never smiled—at least not so that she might see him—even though he was certain that she, in her simplicity of spirit, was really looking for the boy.
All winter and throughout the summer, too, the Hunter place had been closed, until that day in late October. It had been a warm week—a week of such unseasonable humidity for the hills that Caleb, rising somewhat before his usual hour, had blamed his sleeplessness, as usual, upon the weather. He was glad to be home again that morning; he had been so lonely away from home that he was warmed unaccountably by the thought that Allison was in the hills, too. And he was sure of that fact, for the night before, when their train pulled into the station which occupied the spot where Allison's mill-yards had stood before, the bright brass work upon the private car of the owner of the stucco place next his own had been unmistakable.
Caleb was even wondering if Barbara would be with her father on this trip. Barbara had, he knew, been two years on the continent, "finishing," Allison called it, always with a wry face and a gesture toward his wallet pocket. He was wondering, as he came down the stairs, if she would ask him again if—if . . . and then, at the sight of a seated figure outside on the top step of the veranda, he pulled up sharp in the doorway.
Caleb didn't have to wonder any longer!
The attitude of that figure before him was so like the picture which time had been unable to erase—so absolutely identical in everything save garb and size alone—that the man, recoiling a little, dragged one hand across his forehead as though he doubted his own eyes. But when he looked again it was still there, sitting chin in palm, small head under a rather weather-beaten felt hat thrust slightly forward, gazing fixedly toward the stucco house beyond the shrubbery. And before Caleb could move, before he was more than half aware of the painful pulse in his throat, it all happened again, just as it had happened years and years before.
Caleb heard voices in the adjoining grounds, and as he half turned in that direction Allison's bulky form, vivid in a far more vivid plaid, appeared in the hedge gap. While Caleb stared another figure flashed through ahead of him, laughter upon her lips, and paused a-tip-toe, to wave a hand in greeting. And instantly, as they had a dozen years before, Barbara Allison's eyes swung in instant scrutiny of the one who was seated at Caleb's feet. She hesitated, and recovered herself. But when, with quite dignified deliberation, she finally came forward to pass that motionless figure upon the steps, every pulse in her body was beating consciousness of his nearness. And yet, at that, when she paused at Caleb's side and bobbed her head with a characteristic impetuosity which she had never lost she seemed completely oblivious to the presence of anyone save Caleb and herself.
"Good morning, Uncle Cal," she murmured, very demurely.
Then the man upon the steps moved; he rose and turned and swept his rather weather-beaten hat from his head. His hair was still wavy, still chestnut in the shadows. And Caleb, though he could not force a word from his tightened throat, marveled how tall the boy had grown—how paradoxically broad of shoulder and slender of body he seemed to be.
It was a man's face which was lifted to his, tanned and wrinkled a little at the corners of the eyes by much exposure to sun and wind. But the eyes themselves hadn't changed a bit. They were still the same steady and unwavering gray. A smile crept into them, a smile crept across the even lips, and for all the change there was in that slow mirth it might have been the little figure of other days—the boy in the white drill trousers and uncouth boots—who was smiling up at Caleb.
Standing there in his blue flannel shirt and corduroy trousers, clasped tight to knee by high brown boots below them, Stephen O'Mara held out a sinewy brown hand. His voice was a little unsteady, but the mimicry of his own drawling speech of former years held an echo of boyhood—a twanging, boyish echo—which dragged at Caleb's very heartstrings.
"Haow—haow d'ye do, Uncle Cal?" he quavered.
Barbara had turned and started indoors in search of Miss Sarah. Now she halted, her slim back toward the two men at the veranda's edge, and stood motionless at the sound of that voice. When, little by little, she faced around at last, it was fairly to feel those grave gray eyes resting upon her own face. The blood of a sudden came storming up into Barbara's cheeks. And Caleb, even if he did not know what all of the girl's emotions were at that moment, knew that he knew one of them at least. Caleb had just learned himself what it was to see a ghost.
Dexter Allison, coming up less airily across the lawn, surprised his daughter poised with one hand outstretched, red lips half open. Ho found her staring, velvet eyed and pink of face, at a tall figure in blue flannel and corduroy, and although he had never seen him in all the months that the latter had been in his employ, Allison knew this must be the one in whose keeping lay, directly or indirectly, the success or failure of the biggest thing he had ever attempted in this north country—the man to whom he always referred, whenever he boasted of his exploits, as "my man O'Mara."
Beyond that point, however, Allison's immediate recognition did not go. The past interested him but little, except as a matter for precedent or a record of past performances. But memory fairly clamored in the girl's ears that morning. There was not one tiniest detail of the strangely intense, sturdily confident little hill-boy's bearing but what came back to her at that moment. She remembered them all, and seconds later, when Steve's fingers had closed over her own outstretched hand, she realized that she was staring at him in a childishly concentrated effort to read again in the man's gaze the undisguised worship and wonder which had always followed her from the eyes of the boy who had fought to be her knight. And she realized suddenly that he had sensed the effort behind her eager scrutiny, even though his own eyes remained whimsically unreadable.
"I always told them that you would come back," she murmured then. "Just as you—you said you would."
The remark was barely loud enough for even Steve to hear, but hard upon its utterance she caught her breath in anger at herself for her own senseless confusion, which had led her into saying the one thing she least of all had wanted to voice. Even an inane remark concerning the weather would have been better than that girlish naivete which she felt seemed to force upon him, too, a recollection of the very letter of a promise which had, no doubt, long since become in his mind nothing but a quaint episode not untinged with absurdity.
She realized that her hand still lay in his; she grew hotly conscious of her father's rather perplexed survey of the tableau. And in that instant when Allison's first words reached her burning ears, even before Steve could reply to her greeting, she wrung free her fingers with an abruptness which, when she remembered it afterward, only added to her fury at her absurd confusion.
"Hum-m-m," puffed Allison. "Hum-m-m!" He spoke directly to Stephen O'Mara, who half turned his head at the first heavily facetious syllable. "So you did get my message, eh? I rather thought that it wouldn't reach you, up-river, until to-day." An ample smile embraced the tall figure in riverman's garb and his own daughter's crimson countenance—a most meaningful smile of roguery. "Well, from what I've heard," he stated, "and what I've . . . seen, I should say that you are my man, O'Mara. Mr. Elliott himself has informed me that your quite spectacular success in one or two vital campaigns has been entirely due to the fact that you are an—er—opportunist! I agree with Mr. Elliott, absolutely—that is, if my first premise is correct."
And his laughter rumbled softly.
Barbara's face had cooled a little in that moment since Steve's eyes had left her face. Now she forgot her confusion—forgot to be annoyed, even at her father's clumsy banter.
"Your man, O'Mara!" she exclaimed indignantly. "Your man! Why, he—he's my—" and that was as far as she went.
Her voice thinned into nothingness, but words were not necessary to tell either Caleb or Steve that she had been about to assert a prior claim which dated back years and years.
The man whose smile was still that of the boy turned slowly back to Barbara. His quiet mirth, which crinkled the corners of his eyelids, seemed totally detached and impersonal; and yet it hinted, too, at an intimate enjoyment of the situation which they alone could appreciate. Steve merely held out his hand again and took her slim fingers within his own.
"I have always insisted to Mr. Elliott," he said, "that the solution of all the difficulties, which he chooses to view as gloriously romantic tilts with Destiny, depends one-half upon luck, and the other half on being on the ground personally, when the—affair—starts." He half faced toward Allison. "I am O'Mara," he finished very briefly, "your man, O'Mara—if you happen to be the East Coast Development and Timber Company?"
There was at most no more than the barest suggestion of it in Steve's crisp question, but Caleb sensed immediately that Allison's placid appropriation of the blue flannel-shirted one as his own particular property was not a mutually accepted status. Dexter, however, failed, or chose, to read nothing in the drawling question.
"I'm it," he agreed, jovially. "That is—I and two or three others, including Mr. Elliott, our esteemed president."
He mounted the steps heavily and stood contemplating the small hand still within the larger, browner one.
"The introductions seem to have outstripped me," he remarked, "but—er—any objection to shaking hands with me, too, Mr. O'Mara?"
Stephen laughed aloud. Allison's attempted lugubrity was really funny. From the door Barbara echoed his laughter in bubbling, throaty amusement at it all.
"Poor, blind papa!" she chanted mockingly, and disappeared on swift feet.
Allison scowled after her.
"Not so blind as some—the unprincipled jade!" he retorted. "But that's another thing I've heard about you, Mr. O'Mara, if you will pardon a garrulous old gossip's personalities. They tell me that you aren't particularly—susceptible?"
And then the bantering tone was dropped entirely. In the rest of Allison's greeting was all that Caleb found most lovable in the man's whole make-up—his proneness to accept men as men, for what they had done or might do, in a man's world.
"I've heard much of you, Mr. O'Mara; I've looked forward to this meeting," he said, as he shook hands. "Now I want to tell you that I am proud to know you. And so you didn't get my message, after all?"
The handclasp left Allison staring ruefully at his reddened fingers. Steve shook his head.
"I had to come down river, yesterday," he explained. "Your telegram found me here, and I waited over until this morning, as you suggested."
"Surely . . . surely! I see . . . I see!" Allison emphasized his comprehension. "Not that it was anything of vital importance. I just wanted a short conference with you, yourself, that was all. Elliott's own reports on the work are so tinged with his eternal optimism, so colored by what you aptly termed his romantic zest for the game, that I wanted your own opinion concerning the possibility of the East Coast Company finishing that railroad in time to fulfil their contracts. No hurry about it; but that's my house over yonder. You were just one place too far north to find me."
He turned to face Caleb. There was a flood of questions upon the latter's lips. Caleb wanted to seize the boy by the shoulder, and spin him around toward the light and stare and stare into his face; but he waited because he found much that was hugely diverting in Dexter's bland ignorance, which had even accepted Steve's presence there as a case of misdirection.
"I suppose you know what this early morning call presages, Cal?" Allison challenged.
Before Caleb could reply Steve knew what the answer was to be. The request found him already at the door, grinning broadly.
"Would you—would you mind finding Miss Sarah, Steve?" Caleb asked. "Will you tell her, please, that we are to be subjected to another—neighborly imposition!"
Steve's going left Allison frowning a little.
"We've played this farce through a hundred times, Cal," he murmured, "and it wasn't according to formula—that last remark of yours. But, do you know, just for a minute it sort of reminded me of something—something that seems to have happened before, and I can't recall just what."
He shook his head and led the way to a chair.
"It wasn't our nonsense that affected me, either," he finished. "I believe it was O'Mara himself who . . . but I didn't know that you were acquainted with him, Cal. Have you known him long?"
"Um-m-m—yes!" Caleb weighed his reply. "Quite some time, I think I might say."
He shook with scarcely suppressed laughter, but Allison ignored his senseless mirth.
"I'd like to claim that boy as my own discovery," he avowed, "but I can't—not without fear of successful contradiction on Elliott's part. And in point of service it isn't fair to call him a boy, either, though I suppose both of us are old enough to be his father. He's Elliott's find. Elliott suggested him as the one man for this job, when I consolidated with the Ainnesley crowd and they took up the contract to move the Reserve timber from Thirty-Mile and the valleys above. Elliott knew of him, but I've been looking up his record pretty closely, since he took hold in earnest.
"He's in his twenties, as near as I can make out, but he's come through on one of two jobs that might well make an old campaigner envious. He took a fortune in hard woods out of San Domingo for a Berlin concern; he was the only man on the St. Sebastian River job who said the construction was too light. He said it wouldn't stand when the ice began to move in the spring—and it didn't! Oh, he knows his business! But it wasn't his successes which caught Elliott's eye. It's the way he has failed a couple of times, fighting right back to the last ditch—and fighting and fighting!—when all the rest had quit, that made me anxious to get a look at him. Perhaps there are older men who can outfigure him on loads and stresses, but as a field general he stands alone. He can handle men. And, when it comes to meeting conditions just as they arise, Elliott says he's a wonder—he can outguess dear old Mother Nature herself!"
There was grave appreciation in Allison's voice—honest appreciation of a man who had himself achieved, for another man's achievement. And yet Caleb, in spite of the proud pumping of his heart, in spite of his desire to murmur, "But I told you so, Dexter, years ago," still found room to wonder at a thin strain of speculation which seemed to underrun the speaker's words. In his reiteration of O'Mara's qualities Allison seemed almost to be assuring himself that infallibility was not a human attribute. And his next remark only served to heighten that suggestion.
"That's why the East Coast Co. brought him up here to build their bit of road," he went on slowly. "They've got to move that Reserve Company timber. They have a contract that'll break 'em—break us—if we fall down. And do you know, Cal, I—I can't help but believe that the thing is beyond the pale of possibility. I believed it six months ago, when Elliott and Ainnesley and the rest of them were so keen for it, and I believe it still, even though I have seen Elliott's engineer and know what he has already accomplished. That track'll never go through on schedule—and that's why I'm up here for the winter. It's going to be a hot little race against time, with some millions for a purse. It'll break the East Coast Co. if he fails, and"—his voice became oddly intense—"and I tell you again that it—can't—be—done!"
Then Allison became aware of Caleb's mild astonishment at his vehemence.
"An amateur's opinion, of course, Cal," he laughed, "which is strictly entre nous. But, win or lose, this man O'Mara will be a valuable man to have around after the thing is decided."
"You said that he reminded you of something," Caleb began rather heavily. "It recalled something to me, too. I wonder if you remember a little fishing trip that we took, some ten or twelve years ago, Dexter, up into the hills? It was to the headwaters of the cast branch, somewhere in the neighborhood of the Reserve Company's holdings, I should say."
"Why, yes," the other answered, off-handedly. "Why, yes, now that you mention it, I do remember. May I ask your reason for speaking of it?"
"No reason in particular," Caleb hesitated. "Only this O'Mara reminded me of something, too—something that you said, that night at the camp-fire."
Allison's monosyllable was coolly noncommittal.
"Can you remember what it was?" Caleb asked, positively uncomfortable now.
"I think I remarked that there was a fortune for some man in that valley, if he was far-sighted enough. Was that it?"
Then Caleb understood the challenge in his friend's voice. He thought he understood. The names of the stockholders of the Reserve Company were all strange to Caleb save one. The Honorable Archibald Wickersham, who was said to represent huge foreign interests, he had known as a boy. And Caleb had seen Dexter indescribably sore, before this, from having overlooked, as he termed it himself, "a sure thing bet." He laughed, more like his placid self again.
"Bless you, no!" he exclaimed. "What have I ever done to make you believe that a mere commercial estimate would remain with me this long? It—it was something that you said concerning the making of a gentleman. I just wondered if you were of your early way of thinking. I wondered if you would consider that—that——"
Allison lay back in his chair and breathed deeply, slowly—and Miss Sarah appeared that moment in the doorway, pinker of cheek and more tremulous of lip than her brother had ever seen her before. She dropped Allison an old-fashioned curtsy, which was an exceedingly frivolous performance for Sarah.
"Breakfast is served, Cal," she fairly chortled, "and there are two very hungry children inside."
HARRIGAN, THAT'S ME!
Never before had the air of that long, paneled room been so surcharged with half-suppressed hilarity. At first her father merely scowled at Barbara's intermittent little gurgles, which refused to stay entirely pent-up; he frowned at her seemingly inane interruptions of the technical discussion into which he had immediately plunged with the East Coast Company's engineer, until he could no longer ignore the smile which pulled at the lips of the latter, too, at every fresh attempt of the girl to swing the conversation into an utterly irrelevant channel. He looked around the table then and caught the gleam in Caleb's eyes; he took note of Miss Sarah's illuminated face, and gave way to a burst of querulousness not all simulation.
"What is the joke?" he demanded in a voice that set them all to rocking in their chairs. "Let me in on it—let me laugh, too—if there is anything worth laughing at. Cal, you're growing old—old and feeble-witted!"
He turned sternly to his daughter, but the darkly glowing eyes which she lifted to his absolutely silenced him for an instant. Twin devils of mischief fairly danced in their shimmering, liquid depths. The girl's face, even to him who had long before grown overfamiliar with its beauty, was a wonderfully lovely thing. Allison sat and stared at her for a moment, blankly, and when he went on his voice had become less testy.
"And you," he growled, "you have interrupted me a dozen times already, always with some nonsense of which I can make neither rime nor reason. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to get Mr. O'Mara's reason for establishing his headquarters at Thirty-Mile, instead of directing the work from Morrison, which would seem to be far more convenient."
Barbara bobbed her head, meekly. Her giggle, however, was shameless.
"But Mr. O'Mara has been trying to tell you," she defended in a suffocated small voice, "that it's because the work at this end is not so difficult. There are several miles of swamp work, I think he said, and a bridge or something, which promises trouble. I—I am sorry if I interrupted. I only wanted to ask Mr. O'Mara a question myself—a—a very unimportant question, I'm afraid!"
Allison had had experience with his daughter's seeming meekness. Moreover, the working of Caleb's and Sarah's faces baffled him. He waited, fuming.
"Just before you and Uncle Cal came in we—we were talking about the weather," the girl struggled on. "Mr. O'Mara predicted it would rain soon and I just wanted to ask him what made him think so."
"Yes?" Allison temporized.
It was very quiet for a moment. Steve sat, a little red of face himself, gazing across into the girl's starry eyes.
"Go ahead!" she prompted him with a gasp.
Then his lips began to curl until a smile overspread his face and half-closed his eyes. He leaned back and raised obediently a quaintly solemn, quaintly boyish treble.
"I wa'n't guessin'," he averred soberly, "ner I wa'n't thinkin' it will. It'll jest be rainin', come sunup, and it'll be good fer till Wednesday, for sure!"
At the beginning of that quavering statement Dexter Allison's lips fell apart. They remained open long after Steve had finished. Once he started to rise, and then dropped back into his chair, dumfounded. There was no doubt concerning the success of his daughter's query. At last he got to his feet and padded around the table. With a hand on either of the boy's shoulders, he turned that browned face up to his own.
"You," he murmured, weakly. "You! And Elliott said that you could outguess dear old Mother Nature herself! Well, I—I'm damned!"
They talked no more business at table that morning, and Allison found scant opportunity to make himself heard at all. Even the reticence which seemed a part of Steve's grave face and big body was swept aside before the tumult of questions that tumbled from Barbara's lips, promptly to be supplemented by Caleb whenever her breath gave out.
"And to think that you didn't recognize him, even when you met him face to face," she rallied her father. "It was dense enough of me not to have known instantly who it must be, the first day you began your endless reiteration of 'my man, O'Mara.' I, at least, should have known, because—because"—she faltered a little—"well, they always do, in books!"
It raised another storm of laughter—that faltering, ingenuous reason of hers—and Barbara hastened to explain that the phrase was a relic of her own childhood, which she had once coined in extenuation of conduct to which her mother had objected. She still employed it, she explained, in particularly irresponsible moments.
It was minutes before Allison could wedge in a single remark, longer than that before he stopped frowning to himself in a fashion which made Caleb remember that moment of inexplicable vehemence, outside on the veranda. They had retrogressed as far as the "injine"—the "steam injine"—when Allison finally made himself heard.
"What I can't remember is just why you left us so suddenly. I know it was some sort of a rumpus, with Barbara in it—there's always a woman, of course—but I can't recall——"
He paused to ponder—paused and became aware immediately of Barbara's swift silence and Steve's hint of self-consciousness. Then it all returned to him with a rush. He had his turn.
"Oh, but I do remember," he drawled. "Why, of course—of course! It was a matter of knight-errantry and ladies fair! But who was it whose choice conflicted with your own?"
He cocked his head on one side, mock thoughtful; then he fell to pounding his knee and roared with laughter.
"Archie Wickersham!" he shouted. "Archie Wickersham—oh, Lord! I never really appreciated that melee until this minute. And you promised that you'd be back, didn't you, and—well, b'gad, here you are! And now don't suffer any longer, Barbara, though I must state that this is the first time I ever knew you to search so diligently beneath the table for renewed composure. I am not going to expound Mr. O'Mara's reasons for going, any more than I could dilate upon those which have brought him back. But please shake hands again—Steve. And, if I may be pardoned the idiom, allow me to assure you that it was some battle!"
If it did nothing else, Allison's ponderous raillery served one end. It removed any sentimental awkwardness which might have attached to the episode, and yet the girl rather resented its being so completely reduced to terms of farce-comedy. When the men rose, after breakfast, to go down into the town, she, too, declared her intention of accompanying them, as though it were the expected thing. She crossed the lawn at Steve's side, ahead of her father and Caleb, with Miss Sarah watching from the door. Both men walked for a time in silence, their eyes upon the slender figure in short skirt and woolly sweater beside the taller one in blue flannel before them. And, as usual, Allison was the first to speak.
"Now I know what you meant when you referred to that trip up the west branch, Cal," he said. "And you were right. It does take stuff to make that sort of a gentleman. Isn't there anything more to tell me? I am truly interested, Cal."
So Caleb told him then of "Old Tom's" tin box. And while he was explaining the man and girl ahead, all in one breath, skipped back to that day-before-yesterday now many years gone. There was a quality of camaraderie in the girl's half-parted lips and eager impulsiveness of tongue that morning that was entirely boyish. Her very unconsciousness of self intensified and emphasized it for the man whose steady gaze rarely left her warm face. And more than once she caught herself watching for his slow smile to spread and crinkle the corners of his eyelids; once or twice, in a little lull, she found time to wonder at that new and quite frivolous mood of hers. But when Steve finally asked for Devereau—Garry Devereau, who had followed him to the hedge-gap that day and laid one hand upon his bowed, shamed shoulder—the light went from Barbara's eyes. And Stephen O'Mara, who did not understand at first the quick hurt which entered them, stopped smiling, too.
"I liked him," Steve said simply. "I've always remembered and liked him. Thinking of him and—and—has often kept me from being too lonely nights when I was lonely enough."
That statement concerning his friend contained the first personal note which had come from his lips. Barbara did not answer immediately, and Steve thought that she was phrasing her own reply. He could not know that she wanted a moment in which to contemplate the little hint of diffidence in his voice and to wonder at herself for not having wondered before if he had not, many, many times, been very lonely indeed.
"Do you remember a little girl who was at our place the summer you were here?" she asked finally. "A pale, red-lipped, very shy little thing named Mary Graves?"
"And do you remember how, even then, Garry seemed to care for her? He was always supercilious with the rest of us; he tormented us or ignored us entirely, but never her."
Again the inclination of the head.
"Well, he grew up just that way," Barbara went on, thoughtfully. "One never could tell what was behind his indifference or—or flippancies. He mocked at things . . . customs and courses of action, which we have come to accept and . . . and recognize. But he was always gentle with her, and kind, and—oh, I think reverend is the right word! Now, knowing Garry as I do—as you will, when you see him again—the phrase may seem a strange one to apply to him. And yet it describes best his bearing toward Mary Graves, two years ago."
She was walking more slowly now, without knowing it.
"I doubt if Garry ever revered anything on earth, or above it, except just little, white, shy Mary Graves, who never grew much bigger than she was when you knew her. I don't know whether you know it—of course you don't!—but his father cared that way for a woman, cared just as utterly. And everybody thought this match was an assured thing; they even wondered at it a little, she was so . . . so mouselike, and Garry so brilliant and hard and—I don't like the word sophisticated. It seemed to me that Garry's wisdom was not a thing which he had acquired himself. It seemed more the accumulated wisdom of ages and ages which was his just by—by instinct.
"He cared for her that way, Mr. O'Mara, and she married another man, almost without a word of explanation to him. Nobody ever cited Garry as a shining example, but he—that man whom Mary Graves married—had an unspeakable record! Her family made the match—the newspapers call it a union of America's fairest youth and powerful millions, don't they? Well, he had them—and she married him. And Garret Devereau dropped out of the world for a long time.
"It was a year before he came back. People had already begun to talk about the way his father had gone before him—he shot himself, Mr. O'Mara, when he became tired of waiting for Garry's mother to return—and when Garry reappeared they talked more. I never knew before that a change so terrible could take place in anyone so much a man as I know Garry to be. It's not just his face and his rather dreadful silence. It's not the fact alone that he drinks too much, and shows it, pitifully. It's—oh, it's the pity that a brain so keen could so deliberately commit suicide.
"They've begun to drop him, Mr. O'Mara, and you know what that means. But I'll always care for him deeply. That's why I have asked him up this fall. Don't you think you could come down again, Friday, if you have to go back into the woods before then? I'm going to have a party for some week-end guests—a masque dance. Garry needs his friends now, more than he ever did, and—and when you meet him will you—will you, please, not let him see that you notice how much he has changed?"
Barbara put one hand upon his elbow, and again in that moment of contact the directness of her appeal made Steve think of a slim and clear-eyed boy. He realized that she cared for Garrett Devereau only as he cared himself with fine and lasting appreciation for the finenesses of him whom they had known together. Steve nodded his comprehension, and made no answer to her invitation to him, then. But they found conversation somehow less easy after that. It was not until they had traversed the streets of the lower village—long lanes of red and blue and saffron-fronted saloon-hotels and rivermen's lodging-houses—and reached the newer, huger mills down-river that the girl regained in part her former vivacity.
Morrison had grown, inconceivably, in those elapsed years. A railroad station and freight-yard occupied the ground which had been occupied by the former mills; a single track road stretched arrow-straight into the south to a junction with the trunk line, which swung westward twenty odd miles below. And even the very atmosphere of that lower portion of the town was different. The men still swarmed in on the drives, brilliant dots of color against the neutral background of the dusty wide streets. Their capacity for abandonment to pleasure, their prodigality, was as great as ever, but the old-time picturesque simplicity of it all seemed lacking—the simplicity which had once mitigated much that would have been otherwise only brutish. The dingily gaudy saloon fronts, like drabs in blowsy finery, struck a too sophisticated, sinister note—which, after all, only sums up completely the change which had taken place. Even the vices of the older Morrison, in being systematized, had become infinitely more complicated, too. It was no longer a river village. Morrison was a city now.
Once, when a squatly huge, red-headed, red-shirted riverman with a week's red stubble upon his cheeks, lurched out of a doorway ahead of them and stood snarling malevolently at O'Mara, the girl shrank against her companion and clutched his arm. The red-shirted one fell to singing after they had passed. A maudlin rendition of "Harrigan, That's Me," followed them long after they had rounded a corner. Steve looked down and smiled casually into Barbara's wide and startled eyes.
"That's a river-boss," he explained, "enjoying what he considers a roaring good time. His name is Harrigan. He works on the Reserve Company's cut, which we are to move in the spring, and whenever he has had a trifle more than enough he always sings that song. He's willing to fight, too, to prove that it was written especially for him!"
The girl continued to gaze up at him. His short laugh failed entirely to clear her face of apprehension.
"He's not exactly a friend of yours, is he?" she said.
"Well, not exactly," Steve admitted. "Not when he is in that frame of mind!"
"Nor in any other," the girl persisted, and she glanced down at her hand, still lying upon the blue-flannel sleeve. "Did you know that your arm grew as hard as iron for an instant? I never knew that anyone's arm could grow as hard as that. And is that the way you always prepare to receive your—friends?"
Steve colored a little.
"Perhaps I'm overcautious," he replied. "But it has to be hard. It constitutes what one of my men, Joe Morgan, calls 'accident insurance.'"
Then her face lighted up again. The delighted bob of her head with which she greeted that name astonished the man.
"Do you—why, you must have heard of Joe," he exclaimed.
Mischief danced again in the dark eyes.
"Joe Morgan," she laughed. "'Fat Joe,' isn't it? And of course I have heard of him. You don't realize it, but I know more about this East Coast work and—and the men who are doing it, than I had any idea myself. Why, I'll wager that you never knew, yourself, that he once wrote in to the officials insisting that the entry of his name on the files be changed from 'Joe Morgan, cook,' to 'Joseph Morgan, assistant to Chief O'Mara'!"
Steve's chuckle of appreciation was answer enough.
"I didn't know," he admitted, "but it's like him. And it was no more than reasonable, either—that request—even if it is funny. He has been cook for me; but he's been doctor and nurse and countless other things in as many crises. He's the most trustworthy and capable adviser, too, that any man ever had."
She scanned his face closely at the timbre of those words. Then, with face averted, "Didn't he embroider you a—a sofa-cushion, too, once?" she inquired, quite demurely.
Steve grew very red.
"Who told you that?" he blurted, and Barbara giggled again.
"Mr. Ainnesley, I think. Then it is true? I—I never believed it before."
Watching the blood creep up beneath his tanned skin, she told herself that she did like more than a little the way his eyelids crinkled when he grinned.
"We were in San Domingo that year," he explained none too composedly. "It was near Christmas, and Joe wouldn't consider any of the native wares as a gift. So he—he worked it himself in—in yellow worsted on a red background. I have it still, displayed in a conspicuous place in the shack up-river. But now I'll wager that you can't guess what the motto is across its front. He told me that he didn't care for it particularly himself, but it was the only one he could find. You can't guess, but you are permitted to try."
And he gasped when she threw back her head and burst into her gurgling, throaty laugh.
"'What is home without a father?'" she sing-songed. And when they were both sober-faced again she added:
"I want to know him, please! Can't I meet him, Mr. O'Mara?"
Side by side they turned in at the millyard, between towering piles of aromatic raw planks. Behind them Caleb and Allison had lost still more ground while the latter paused to speak a peremptory word in the ear of a mildly intoxicated, red-headed riverman who was pouring forth his whole soul in the refrain of "Harrigan, That's Me!" And almost immediately, in answer to Barbara's question, Steve pointed across to a short, plump figure in conversation with McLean, the mill superintendent. Even at that distance his broad face gleamed from the closeness of a recent shave; even at that distance it was quickly apparent to the girl that his garb was as near a replica of O'Mara's own clothes as his lack of height and extra weight would permit.
"Will you bring him?" she asked eagerly. "Will he come?"
But the question was unnecessary. Joe Morgan—Fat Joe to the river-front and the construction squad—was already hustling in their direction, even before Steve, with that slow smile tugging at his lips, had finished assuring her that it was never necessary to summon Joe into the presence of an attractive member of the opposite sex. He came without being called. Barbara had a closer and closer view of him, until he stopped at last directly in front of them and bowed. She wanted to laugh at that wide face—at the grandiloquent flourish with which he removed his hat—and would have had she not recalled the grave respect with which the man beside her had referred to him a moment before. His eyes were palest blue, his nose a smooth pink mound in an expanse of pink, pink cheeks. She noted that his teeth were as white and even as those of O'Mara himself. Fat Joe bowed again.
"Morning, Chief," he saluted, in that thin and reedy tenor which none but fat men have.
Then Barbara laughed.
Steve managed the presentation with extreme punctility and left them. When he returned, almost an hour later, he heard them both laughing long before he came into view, and on the way back up the hill the girl detailed for him much of her conversation with Fat Joe.
"Hereafter I shall be more dignified when in your presence," she informed him in as deep a bass as she could summon. "I had no idea how great and important a man was escorting me when I came down this hill! But Mr. Morgan has enlightened me."
With that she discovered that she could still tease him, almost as easily as she had teased the sturdy small boy of the uncouth shoes and napping trousers.
"Joe is necessarily prejudiced in his opinion," he argued, "and therefore shouldn't be taken too seriously."
"He told me that you had one regrettable characteristic, however," the girl went on. "He lamented your strength at the ancient and honorable pastime of stud-poker! And he also bewails your taste in literature. Why, he tells me that you are indicted to Dickens and Dumas—he didn't pronounce it that way, either—and even fall back upon Shakespeare, in dark and dour hours. No, I am positive that Mr. Morgan docs not approve of such fiction. He confided to me that he finds more entertainment, of a winter's night, in perusing a Sears-Roebuck or a Montgomery-Ward catalogue. And—and do you know what I admitted to him? No? Well, I told him that some of the happiest moments of my life had been spent in just such fashion. I've always thought they were fascinating!"
She badgered him on the way back up the hill that morning, but when they paused for a moment at the edge of the close-cropped lawn which rolled back to the stucco and timber house facing the river, she abandoned her facetiousness.
"Why should there be any—any element of personal danger in this work you are doing, Mr. O'Mara?" she asked. "And did I do wrong in mentioning to Mr. Morgan how that man came out of that—place, and glared so at you?"
His rejoinder should have been very reassuring.
"So Joe has been hinting at that mystery stuff again, has he? After listening to him one is almost compelled to believe that I run daily a veritable gauntlet of nameless perils."
Barbara stood, small fists buried in her sweater pockets, studying his smile of amusement.
"I shouldn't like to believe so," her voice was faintly diffident. "And you—you haven't accepted my invitation for Friday. May I expect you? I didn't tell you, but Archie—Archibald Wickersham—will be there, as well as Garry. So—so you won't be entirely unacquainted."
And then, at those words, his face changed. All in one fleet second, in spite of the whole morning's quick intimacy of mood and the spirit of companionship which to her had seemed a delightfully new yet time-tried thing, Barbara found that she could not read an inch behind those grave gray eyes. She found his quiet countenance as unreadable as that of the utmost stranger might have been. And while she waited, not entirely certain how displeased she was at his deliberation, a blackest of black horses soared splendidly over a fence to the north and came cantering down the road. The rider, a tall, bare-headed girl, lifted her crop in salute as she caught sight of them.
"My friend, Miriam Burrell," the girl murmured in explanation to Steve, and something had gone from her voice and left it conventionally impersonal. "She's riding Ragtime, and isn't he a beauty—almost as much a beauty as she is herself?"
The horse came on, to be reined up at last directly in front of the two at the roadside. Stephen O'Mara met for a moment the level, measuring glance of its rider, before Miriam Burrell turned to Barbara.
"I've enjoyed exceedingly our morning canter, Bobs," her alto voice drawled.
Then, before Barbara could reply, she threw one booted leg from the stirrup and dismounted. With the reins looped over her elbow she faced the man in blue flannel and corduroy, a tall, lithe figure with coppery red hair and whitest skin and doubly vivid lips.
"You're Stephen O'Mara," she said, and the calmly direct statement might have been overbrusk had it not been for the modulation of her low voice. "You're Stephen O'Mara, for a thousand!"
And she held out a gauntleted hand, the clasp of which corroborated the suggestion of wirelike strength in that lithely straight body.
Barbara Allison had never been able to analyze her preference for Miriam Burrell. Even the girl's undeniable beauty of face had often puzzled her, for, taken each feature by itself, it was far more striking than beautiful. There was no color in her pale skin; her red mouth, if anything, was a trifle too wide, and her wide-set eyes were tip-tilted in an almost Oriental slant. Her utter lack of hypocrisy, her unsparing arraignment of fundamental motives—her own and those of all with whom she came in contact—often resulted in calmly direct comments which were stunningly disastrous to casual conversation. For Miriam Burrell told the truth to others, which was unusual enough to puzzle more than a few; she did not lie to herself, and that was an enigma to almost all. It resulted, of course, in a reputation for "unconventionalism."
There was scarcely a day passed but that her coldly dispassionate dissection of this or that foible of their own set, did not startle or sometimes distress Barbara Allison; hardly a day but that her cool voice, which could be as tempered as edged steel, did not cut through the veneer of some custom or other and expose the crooked grain beneath. Barbara did not know just why she cared so deeply for Miriam Burrell—we scarcely ever realize that such a regard can be based only upon the deepest of deep-founded faith—but at that moment, while she and Steve were shaking hands so soberly, she felt very little, very much ignored; felt as though she did not share at all the understanding in their eyes.
"I've just asked Mr. O'Mara to come to my dance, Miriam," she said, "and how did you know him, pray? I've asked him, but he is unflatteringly long in accepting."
"Know him?" she echoed. "Know him! Oh, Mr. O'Mara and I have met before. I think just before the fall of the Roman Empire, wasn't it, Mr. O'Mara? Weren't they dragging me in at the wheel of a chariot one afternoon, when you were dealing out a gold piece to each of your legionaries?"
She laughed, dryly, and Barbara felt smaller and more forlorn and lonelier still.
"No doubt Mr. O'Mara hasn't time to be flattering, Bobs," she commented. "But you will have time to come Friday, for a little while, won't you?" she asked.
Steve glanced down at the hand which still felt the pressure of her buckskin clad fingers.
"I have to work—day and night—some weeks when things break badly," he told her simply. "If I can"—and he turned to Barbara—"if I can, I want to come."
Miriam nodded her head with brisk finality.
"If you can," she agreed. "Barbara, no doubt, has been telling you about Garret Devereau, hasn't she? Yes—come if you can. I have heard, Mr. O'Mara, that you have once or twice fought your way out of the dark, when everybody else had lost hope. I want an opportunity to talk with—a specialist in such campaigns!"
Stephen O'Mara had read a meaning in the words of that contained, often abrupt, straightly tall girl of which Barbara Allison had not even dreamed. He stood watching them when they turned up the driveway, the horse Ragtime muzzling the woolly white sweater and following like a dog. But he wasn't thinking of Miriam Burrell or of Garry Devereau, while he waited for Caleb and Dexter Allison to come up with him. He was wondering about Archie Wickersham—the Honorable Archie—thinking about that funny brawl of years before, which had not been so funny after all—wondering if——
It was past twelve that night when Miriam Burrell's door was pushed softly open by a slim white figure which hesitated on the threshold; but the night-light was still burning upon the table. Barbara stood for a moment, staring at her friend, who was sitting bolt upright in bed.
"Then you aren't asleep," she faltered. "Are you—reading?"
The older girl turned and gazed, half blankly, at the dark-eyed face in that mist of loosened hair.
"Yes," she drawled, for all that her hands and hunched-up knees were bookless. "Yes, I'm reading. I'm having a little squint at this puzzle-scroll they call Life."
She made a peremptory gesture and Barbara crept in beside her.
"I—may I turn off the light?" she asked.
Miriam snapped the button.
"I couldn't sleep," Barbara began presently, in a quaintly small voice. "And I—I wanted—Miriam, I've acted so like an unschooled, half-grown girl to-day that it has perplexed and worried me! From the moment when I first recognized him and became so—tangled up—I've just chattered and chattered. You don't think I'm utterly frivolous and unstable, do you?"
"Haven't you always been famed for your poise?" came back the uncompromising voice she knew so well.
"Are you—you aren't laughing at me, are you?" she hesitated. "Because I don't think I am in the mood to be laughed at. And I have poise. I am not a child. But looking back now, I can't quite account for all my—shall I call it cordiality? Don't you believe, Miriam, that it was because I wanted to make up, a little, for the way I treated him when he was a boy?"
"Maybe!" agreed Miriam, unenthusiastically.
"Because I did treat him abominably," went on the drowsy voice. "And, do you know, all day, even when we seemed so—such good friends, I still felt as though he was on guard against any repetition of such a slight. I wouldn't want him to feel that way, but it was there just the same, even in the way he received the invitation to my party. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that there are men who—who'd almost charter a liner to come—if I'd invite them. It would have sounded conceited, but I wanted to jolt him! And he just said he'd come if he could!"
"He has his work," Miriam answered, and into her voice crept that wearied, indescribably hard note which the younger girl couldn't understand. "He has to work, and a lot of those others would be a lot more worth asking, if they had to work, too. I wish every man had to—work—hard; had to work until body and brain were numb with it!" Her voice slurred and she recovered it. "I don't know whether he remembers or not. Probably not! You've just had a unique experience for one of our kind, that's all. You've met a man!"
Barbara raised herself upon one elbow.
"You don't mean to infer, do you, Miriam," she reproved, "that Archie Wickersham or my other friends, or—or Garry, aren't men?"
"Males!" snapped the other girl. "Just males! But"—and she seemed to be arguing with herself—"but Garry might have been, though—he might have been!"
Barbara lay awake a long time, pondering.
"It's odd," she murmured once, "but we did seem so—so congenial. I can't remember when my brain has been so quick to catch a thought or supplement one. Have you ever wondered, Miriam, why we—we can't seem to marry one who brings out the best in us, like that?"
"Can't? You mean, dear child, that we don't! Some of us because the 'best that is in us' is far, far too decently unexciting for daily diet. And some of us—oh, just because we haven't the sand and backbone, I guess!"
But Barbara was too nearly asleep to catch the bitterness of that reply. Just once again, before she slept, she asked a question.
"Should I have told Mr. O'Mara that my engagement to Archibald Wickersham was to be announced at the party?" she murmured.
"Why should you have?" Miriam crisply wanted to know.
"Oh, I don't know," she mused. "Only I thought he might be interested. You don't seem to realize that we are—very old friends!"
And long after Barbara was sound asleep, her face buried in the palm of one hand, Miriam Burrell lay stiffly awake. Once she smiled a little, for such perplexities which, of themselves, must work out inevitably. When dawn came it found her still struggling stubbornly with her own, for which it seemed there could be no solution now.
GREETINGS, SIR GALLAHAD!
It was late that night when Steve climbed into the rig which was waiting with Pat Joe at the reins and they turned north into the hills. For he had remained with Caleb and Miss Sarah long after the logs in the fireplace had crumbled away to a flaky ash, discussing that ink-smeared record which Caleb himself had ridden to find, ten years before, in the shack up-river. And the latter was surprised at learning how much of it was no longer news.
"Yes, I know," Steve told them, after Caleb had finished relating, with quite ponderous pride, many things which he ascertained concerning the Stephen O'Mara who had gone before. "I know! Four or five years ago, when I found out that it was—customary for one to be certain as to such things, I started to look it up myself. And when I found out from the records that a boy by that name had disappeared—perhaps been stolen by an old servant—I remembered instantly, of course, the box over which Old Tom used to hang, hour after hour. I came back into the woods looking for it that summer and found it gone and nothing left of the Jenkins' cabin but a pile of charred logs. On my way out I stopped here—somehow I thought that maybe you might have it—but the house was closed. And no one seemed to know where you had gone or when you would return."
Caleb nodded, and his eyes turned to Sarah.
"We were sleuthing, Steve," he explained as soberly as he was able. "We were ranging from border to border and coast to coast, looking for you." He stopped to scan the browned face closely for an instant. "But couldn't you have written—or—or tried again? We've been waiting—boy!"
Steve's face colored a little.
"I did try, twice after that," he stated, hesitatingly, "but I didn't have much surplus cash for travel in those days, or—or clothes, either. I'm afraid I wasn't too prepossessing an object, on any of those visits, after I had tramped in overland. The house was closed both times I came. And then I did write once—that was from San Domingo—the third year after I left college. I was so lonesome down there that I had to write, I think. But there—wasn't any reply, so I sort of thought perhaps——"
He halted lamely, but his meaning was plain enough. Caleb faced about abruptly, his face sternly accusing.
"Do you mean to hint that you ever dared believe we didn't want——" and there Sarah stopped him with an capable nod of her head. "We didn't get that letter, Steve," he finished. "If we only had we—we would have been less lonely waiting, too."
Steve sat and stared down at his heavy boots.
"I should have known that," he faltered. "I should have known that there were too many presidents on that island, both coming and going, for the mails to be infallible. But I wasn't just sure——"
Miss Sarah cut in then and took the conversation serenely in hand.
"We have something else of yours, Stephen," she said in her soft, almost lisping voice, "something which Caleb brought back with him which he has neglected to mention."
She left them for a moment, and when she came back downstairs with the picture of the girl with the steady mouth and eyes her brother breathed with less difficulty than he had during her absence. For a second or so he had almost believed that she might have run across that bunch of loose tax receipts and the folded, legal-looking document which he had tucked away in his own iron box. Stephen O'Mara sat and looked long and long at his mother's picture. When he finally raised his head again Miss Sarah's eyes were misty, too.
"This is one of the things for which I can never thank you enough," he murmured. "I can only tell you that I didn't know—I didn't understand——"
Miss Sarah took the gilt-framed picture from his hand. She did not need his disconnectedly self-conscious explanation to understand.
"Voluble, verbal gratitude is not an uncommon thing," she answered. "I am going to ask far more than that of you. I've kept her picture always on my table, Stephen, ever since we found it; and I should miss it greatly if I were not to see it often. Do you mind leaving it here, in your room upstairs? I am going to ask that of you, and if you don't mind doing so, then I—I would suggest, too, that you might kiss the—the first 'dressed up lady you ever did git to know,' who must bid you good-night now."
The boyish hesitation with which he saluted Miss Sarah's faded pink cheek was far more delicately flattering than all the effusion in the world could ever have been. After she had left them alone Steve turned and gazed at Caleb, wonder in his face.
"I've never forgotten the way she shook hands with me, that day," he said slowly. "I wondered then if there could be other women with voices just as kind. And I—I'm wondering now."
"I've often speculated on that myself, Steve," he remarked. "And I don't know. I don't know! Sarah is pretty human—even for a Baptist, eh?"
They both laughed over that rainy day which the words recalled; they sat and talked and smoked, but no matter what trend the conversation took, Caleb failed to mention the document or the tax receipts which he had found ten years before in Old Tom's tin box. Even if he had not been entirely certain of it that first day when he had neglected to show them to Sarah, he knew now just what reason underlay his secrecy. Like Old Tom, he felt that his action was in a way more or less extenuated by circumstance. And still mindful of Dexter Allison's odd moment or two of guarded antagonism that very morning, he gradually led the conversation around to more recent things.
"I suppose you have had your conference with Mr. Allison, Steve?" he suggested in a matter-of-fact way.
Instantly at that question all the boyishness left the other's face. He looked away and looked back again, very deliberately.
"No more than a word," he answered. "He asked me to come down again, toward the end of the week, if I could get away. He said no doubt I would want to spend all the time I could to-day with you and Miss Sarah."
"Of course," Caleb exclaimed, "of course! I see. Is it—is it unethical if I ask, privately, your opinion of this job which the East Coast Company has on its hands? Do you believe they can swing it in time to fulfill all their obligations?"
Again there followed a moment's pause while Steve's eyes roved thoughtfully around the room.
"Mr. Elliott wouldn't have risked every cent he has," he finally replied, "unless I had assured him that it wasn't so very much more than a man-sized gamble. Nor Mr. Ainnesley, either, I think. So that puts it up to me pretty squarely, doesn't it? We'll have to win through—because we have to, now!"
"Quite so!" murmured Caleb again.
He studied a long time over his next words, and it was a very vivid vision of a rigid little figure in a wrecked black velvet suit—a vision of a bleak-faced boy with bruised lips who had insisted upon going back downtown for Miss Sarah's eggs—which eventually overbore his distaste for anything that might savor of disloyalty to a friend.
"Of course there could arise unforeseen circumstances," he ventured. "Unforeseen interference which, unless one guarded against it, might defeat every effort."
The room seemed very, very quiet.
"Of course," came the calm answer at last; and Caleb could not see Steve's face behind the cupped hands at his pipe bowl, "of course—unless one more or less guarded against it."
And there, just as calmly, they dropped it. The topic was not discussed again that night, unless a bit of news which Fat Joe Morgan himself delivered might be construed as somehow relative. Fat Joe had been driving for an hour, silent some of the time, but for the most part devoted to a whole-hearted rendition of "Home, Sweet Home," in his thin and bell-like tenor, when he broke off in the middle of a stanza to chuckle.
"Say, Chief," he exclaimed, "I've got news for you that'll just fill you plumb full of happiness and good cheer. I hired another hand to-day who'll be a distinct addition to our gang up-river. Just to while away the dark hours I'll let you guess for a while who he is. I'll let you guess from here to Last Oak, above the cypress bend at the rapids. One, two, three—and the contest is on!"
The man beside Fat Joe stirred and opened his eyes. Fat Joe couldn't see it, for it was too dark, but Steve frowned somewhat at the levity which had interrupted him. He had just been thinking about the tight grip of a slender hand which had fallen upon his arm that afternoon when a red-headed riverman lurched drunkenly from a doorway ahead. Joe's words were exactly coincident with that thought and the answer came mechanically.
"Harrigan," grunted Steve.
And in the darkness Fat Joe sighed mournfully.
"Bull's-eye," he whimpered, "and there goes the whole evenin's entertainment! Why didn't you cast around, sort of fruitless for a while, and prolong the excitement? But you're right. Harrigan, that's him! He'd just met up with that fat party who owns the plaster palace on the hill—just met up with him, down the road a piece, and Allison had fired him for keeps, he said. He asked me if we didn't have room for a nice steady hand, so I hired him. And I'll leave it to you if it ain't Harrigan's feet that's mostly unsteady, at that. He seemed awful cheerful for a man who'd just been allowed to resign, but who was I to entertain dark doubts? I hired him; I thought you might like the touch of color his hair'll lend to the landscape. It'll be comfortin', too, havin' him around where we can have a look at him any time we take the notion. Don't you think so?"
Steve's grunted reply was hardly intelligible, but it seemed to satisfy Fat Joe. The latter had long before learned to read the signs; he knew when his best efforts were only wasted words, and once more he gave his attention to the jogging horses and his neglected melody.
Caleb Hunter, wondering after Steve had gone just how much he might have seemed to insinuate, regretted that he had spoken at all. Recollection of Allison's bluff cordiality with O'Mara only made him the more ashamed of his suspicion, and yet the next morning at table he attempted, covertly, to sound Sarah for an opinion, too. She invariably solved his perplexities or relegated them to the limbo of gentle ridicule.
"Just why should he want this East Coast job to fail?" he puzzled aloud. "He's in it, along with Elliott and Ainnesley, even if he isn't in so deep. That is, of course, assuming that he does want it to fail."
The preoccupied gleam in Miss Sarah's eyes promised a reply that might be worth considering, but when it came Caleb found trouble in assimilating it.
"They did look so well together," she murmured absently. "He's so much broader—and a whole head taller, too!"
It didn't seem to be exactly a relevant answer, but Caleb nodded patiently.
"Taller, yes," he admitted judiciously. "But he isn't half so big around."
Sarah sat, fork poised, and gazed at him.
"Not half so big as who?" she neglected her sentence structure.
"Why—Dexter!" said Caleb. "Isn't that what we were talking about?"
"Maybe you were," Miss Sarah sniffed. "But I was not discussing Dexter's height or girth either. I was referring to his daughter and—and our boy, Stephen. I was going to ask you if you thought she could be entirely disinterested in him. I don't believe any woman forgets a man who has ever thought enough of her to fight for her."
"I suppose not," agreed Caleb humbly.
"And I was wondering, if that argument ever came up again—I'm wondering if Archibald Wickersham wouldn't come out second best, just as he did before?"
Then her brother understood. He threw back his head and laughed until Sarah's face registered a trace of vexation.
"Sarah," he saluted her, "I'm a mere babe in arms when it comes to finesse, in comparison with you. But since you have introduced the subject I might remark that there are two individuals to be considered. Maybe she might be—interested—as you so delicately phrase it. But the boy—well, he's had one mighty pointed lesson, you know."
But there was no mirth in Sarah's eyes. She was most serious.
"That's the very thing which perplexes me," she confessed. "I was going to ask you about that. For it was hurt pride that sent him away and he hasn't forgotten the hurt, even yet. He was going to tell us, last night when I stopped him, that he hadn't written again because he wasn't certain that we wanted to hear; and he was painfully conscious of how childish it would sound in words, too. Some men quit when they are whipped once, but don't some of them refuse to recognize that they've ever been whipped at all, Cal? And then, she told me that she had asked him to her party, Friday night. If he comes I think I'll be better able to tell just what——"
"He won't!" cut in Caleb flatly, and when she taxed him for it he proceeded to elaborate at considerable length the reason for his certainty. His argument was rather tight and so, just because of that, woman-fashion she believed the contrary.
All day Friday she watched the hills' road. Not until the orchestra in the lodge beyond the hedge had begun tunelessly to strum their instruments, to insure their later tunefulness, did she reluctantly abandon her position at the window. But then, from his chair at the fire, Caleb noticed how wistfully disappointed her face was.
It turned much colder with nightfall; a wind sharp with the tang of autumn was blowing in off the river when Barbara, muffled from throat to ankle in a sapphire fur-edged wrap, slipped in at the door, having stolen away ostensibly to display to them her costume. It was after the hour of ten, but the girl lingered a little after she had executed that mission; she stopped again in the door, indecisively worrying her lip with small teeth, when she finally turned to depart.
"We are very sorry that Mr. O'Mara could not come," she hesitated. "I had promised both Garry and Archie Wickersham that he would be down."
The older woman nodded and accepted the statement for what it was—a question which the girl's eyes failed to conceal.
"We haven't heard from him since he went back into camp," she answered. "He, no doubt, has been unable to get away."
Barbara turned without replying and passed out, less airily than she had entered. But Miss Sarah's eyes were no longer disappointed as she again took her place at a window. And a second later, when she had drawn back suddenly into the room with a muffled exclamation, her brother was astonished at her beaming face. A moment earlier he would have sworn that it was only wistful, but before she went upstairs, exclaiming still further at the lateness of the hour, it began to look more than a little like veritable triumph to him.
Barbara Allison recrossed the lawn very slowly that night; she retraced her steps with head bent, the fall of her slippered feet muffled by the carpet of thick, unfrosted grass. Vaguely troubled, vaguely disturbed at herself for her inability to analyze that strange mood which, twice in the last few nights, had sent her with aching throat and wet cheeks into Miriam's room, she was within arm's length of the dark figure in the hedge gap through which she had just come, before she was aware of its presence. Stephen O'Mara, weatherbeaten hat in hand, was standing there in her path, peering steadily at the stucco and timber lodge alight from end to end like a huge and sprawling glow-worm.
Even in that first moment when she stopped and caught her breath, audibly, from sheer surprise, the girl sensed the indecision in the attitude of the man before her. But she could not know that it was not a thing of the moment—that irresolution; could not know that throughout the week Steve had periodically abused himself for his inability to settle the question once and for all, and leave his brain free for more important things. Just as often as he told himself that he would not go, he had found himself reopening the mental discussion, and yet—and strangely enough—it was not the recollection of Barbara's repeated invitations, or even her distress over Garry Devereau, who had been ceaselessly in his thoughts ever since she had spoken of him, which finally achieved the decision. An insistent desire again to meet the Honorable Archibald Wickersham in the end led him to request Fat Joe to hook up the team, that day at noon, for the long drive down river. With Steve himself handling the reins, they had rolled the thirty miles at a speed which might have mildly surprised Fat Joe had he not been accustomed to putting two and two together to make six or eight or more. And Fat Joe's thin tenor was just drifting faintly off down the hill—a mournful rendition of "Home, Sweet Home"—when the girl stepped noiselessly forward and put a hand, feather-light, upon the man's arm.