LITTLE EVE EDGARTON
ELEANOR HALLOWELL ABBOTT
Author of "Molly Make Believe," "The White Linen Nurse," etc.
With Illustrations by
NEW YORK THE CENTURY CO. 1914
Published, September, 1914
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"Music! Flowers! Palms! Catering! Everything!"
"I am riding," she murmured almost inaudibly
"I would therefore respectfully suggest as a special topic of conversation the consummate cheek of—yours truly, Paul Reymouth Edgarton!"
"Your PAPER-DOLL BOOK?" stammered Barton
"Don't delay me!" she said, "I've got to make four hundred muffins!"
Suddenly full comprehension broke upon him and he fairly blurted out his astonishing information
"You're nice," he said. "I like you!"
"Any time that you people want me," suggested Edgarton's icy voice, "I am standing here—in about the middle of the floor!"
LITTLE EVE EDGARTON
"But you live like such a fool—of course you're bored!" drawled the Older Man, rummaging listlessly through his pockets for the ever-elusive match.
"Well, I like your nerve!" protested the Younger Man with unmistakable asperity.
"Do you—really?" mocked the Older Man, still smiling very faintly.
For a few minutes then both men resumed their cigars, staring blinkishly out all the while from their dark green piazza corner into the dazzling white tennis courts that gleamed like so many slippery pine planks in the afternoon glare and heat. The month was August, the day typically handsome, typically vivid, typically caloric.
It was the Younger Man who recovered his conversational interest first. "So you think I'm a fool?" he resumed at last quite abruptly.
"Oh, no—no! Not for a minute!" denied the Older Man. "Why, my dear sir, I never even implied that you were a fool! All I said was that you—lived like a fool!"
Starting to be angry, the Younger Man laughed instead. "You're certainly rather an amusing sort of chap," he acknowledged reluctantly.
A gleam of real pride quickened most ingenuously in the Older Man's pale blue eyes. "Why, that's just the whole point of my argument," he beamed. "Now—you look interesting. But you aren't! And I—don't look interesting. But it seems that I am!"
"You—you've got a nerve!" reverted the Younger Man.
Altogether serenely the Older Man began to rummage again through all his pockets. "Thank you for your continuous compliments," he mused. "Thank you, I say. Thank you—very much. Now for the very first time, sir, it's beginning to dawn on me just why you have honored me with so much of your company—the past three or four days. I truly believe that you like me! Eh? But up to last Monday, if I remember correctly," he added drily, "it was that showy young Philadelphia crowd that was absorbing the larger part of your—valuable attention? Eh? Wasn't it?"
"What in thunder are you driving at?" snapped the Younger Man. "What are you trying to string me about, anyway? What's the harm if I did say that I wished to glory I'd never come to this blasted hotel? Of all the stupid people! Of all the stupid places! Of all the stupid—everything!"
"The mountains here are considered quite remarkable by some," suggested the Older Man blandly.
"Mountains?" snarled the Younger Man. "Mountains? Do you think for a moment that a fellow like me comes to a God-forsaken spot like this for the sake of mountains?"
A trifle noisily the Older Man jerked his chair around and, slouching down into his shabby gray clothes, with his hands thrust deep into his pockets, his feet shoved out before him, sat staring at his companion. Furrowed abruptly from brow to chin with myriad infinitesimal wrinkles of perplexity, his lean, droll face looked suddenly almost monkeyish in its intentness.
"What does a fellow like you come to a place like this for?" he asked bluntly.
"Why—tennis," conceded the Younger Man. "A little tennis. And golf—a little golf. And—and—"
"And—girls," asserted the Older Man with precipitous conviction.
Across the Younger Man's splendidly tailored shoulders a little flicker of self-consciousness went crinkling. "Oh, of course," he grinned. "Oh, of course I've got a vacationist's usual partiality for pretty girls. But Great Heavens!" he began, all over again. "Of all the stupid—!"
"But you live like such a fool—of course you're bored," resumed the Older Man.
"There you are at it again!" stormed the Younger Man with tempestuous resentment.
"Why shouldn't I be 'at it again'?" argued the Older Man mildly. "Always and forever picking out the showiest people that you can find—and always and forever being bored to death with them eventually, but never learning anything from it—that's you! Now wouldn't that just naturally suggest to any observing stranger that there was something radically idiotic about your method of life?"
"But that Miss Von Eaton looked like such a peach!" protested the Younger Man worriedly.
"That's exactly what I say," droned the Older Man.
"Why, she's the handsomest girl here!" insisted the Younger Man arrogantly.
"That's exactly what I say," droned the Older Man.
"And the best dresser!" boasted the Younger Man stubbornly.
"That's exactly what I say," droned the Older Man.
"Why, just that pink paradise hat alone would have knocked almost any chap silly," grinned the Younger Man a bit sheepishly.
"Humph!" mused the Older Man still droningly. "Humph! When a chap falls in love with a girl's hat at a summer resort, what he ought to do is to hike back to town on the first train he can catch—and go find the milliner who made the hat!"
"Hike back to—town?" gibed the Younger Man. "Ha!" he sneered. "A chap would have to hike back a good deal farther than 'town' these days to find a girl that was worth hiking back for! What in thunder's the matter with all the girls?" he queried petulantly. "They get stupider and stupider every summer! Why, the peachiest debutante you meet the whole season can't hold your interest much beyond the stage where you once begin to call her by her first name!"
Irritably, as he spoke, he reached out for a bright-covered magazine from the great pile of books and papers that sprawled on the wicker table close at his elbow. "Where in blazes do the story-book writers find their girls?" he demanded. Noisily with his knuckles he began to knock through page after page of the magazine's big-typed advertisements concerning the year's most popular story-book heroines. "Why—here are no end of story-book girls," he complained, "that could keep a fellow guessing till his hair was nine shades of white! Look at the corking things they say! But what earthly good are any of 'em to you? They're not real! Why, there was a little girl in a magazine story last month—! Why, I could have died for her! But confound it, I say, what's the use? They're none of 'em real! Nothing but moonshine! Nothing in the world, I tell you, but just plain made-up moonshine! Absolutely improbable!"
Slowly the Older Man drew in his long, rambling legs and crossed one knee adroitly over the other.
"Improbable—your grandmother!" said the Older Man. "If there's—one person on the face of this earth who makes me sick it's the ninny who calls a thing 'improbable' because it happens to be outside his own special, puny experience of life."
Tempestuously the Younger Man slammed down his magazine to the floor.
"Great Heavens, man!" he demanded. "Where in thunder would a fellow like me start out to find a story-book girl? A real girl, I mean!"
"Almost anywhere—outside yourself," murmured the Older Man blandly.
"Eh?" jerked the Younger Man.
"That's what I said," drawled the Older Man with unruffled suavity. "But what's the use?" he added a trifle more briskly. "Though you searched a thousand years! A 'real girl'? Bah! You wouldn't know a 'real girl' if you saw her!"
"I tell you I would!" snapped the Younger Man.
"I tell you—you wouldn't!" said the Older Man.
"Prove it!" challenged the Younger Man.
"It's already proved!" confided the Older Man. "Ha! I know your type!" he persisted frankly. "You're the sort of fellow, at a party, who just out of sheer fool-instinct will go trampling down every other man in sight just for the sheer fool-joy of trying to get the first dance with the most conspicuously showy-looking, most conspicuously artificial-looking girl in the room—who always and invariably 'bores you to death' before the evening is over! And while you and the rest of your kind are battling together—year after year—for this special privilege of being 'bored to death,' the 'real girl' that you're asking about, the marvelous girl, the girl with the big, beautiful, unspoken thoughts in her head, the girl with the big, brave, undone deeds in her heart, the girl that stories are made of, the girl whom you call 'improbable'—is moping off alone in some dark, cold corner—or sitting forlornly partnerless against the bleak wall of the ballroom—or hiding shyly up in the dressing-room—waiting to be discovered! Little Miss Still-Waters, deeper than ten thousand seas! Little Miss Gunpowder, milder than the dusk before the moon ignites it! Little Miss Sleeping-Beauty, waiting for her Prince!"
"Oh, yes—I suppose so," conceded the Younger Man impatiently. "But that Miss Von Eaton—"
"Oh, it isn't that I don't know a pretty face—or hat, when I see it," interrupted the Older Man nonchalantly. "It's only that I don't put my trust in 'em." With a quick gesture, half audacious, half apologetic, he reached forward suddenly and tapped the Younger Man's coat sleeve. "Oh, I knew just as well as you," he affirmed, "oh, I knew just as well as you—at my first glance—that your gorgeous young Miss Von Eaton was excellingly handsome. But I also knew—not later certainly than my second glance—that she was presumably rather stupid. You can't be interesting, you know, my young friend, unless you do interesting things—and handsome creatures are proverbially lazy. Humph! If Beauty is excuse enough for Being, it sure takes Plainness then to feel the real necessity for—Doing.
"So, speaking of hats, if it's stimulating conversation that you're after, if you're looking for something unique, something significant, something really worth while—what you want to do, my young friend, is to find a girl with a hat you'd be ashamed to go out with—and stay home with her! That's where you'll find the brains, the originality, the vivacity, the sagacity, the real ideas!"
With his first sign of genuine amusement the Younger Man tipped back his head and laughed right up into the green-lined roof of the piazza. "Now just whom would you specially recommend for me?" he demanded mirthfully. "Among all the feminine galaxy of bores and frumps that seem to be congregated at this particular hotel—just whom would you specially recommend for me? The stoop-shouldered, school-marmy Botany dame with her incessant garden gloves? Or?—Or—?" His whole face brightened suddenly with a rather extraordinary amount of humorous malice: "Or how about that duddy-looking little Edgarton girl that I saw you talking with this morning?" he asked delightedly. "Heaven knows she's colorless enough to suit even you—with her winter-before-spring-before-summer-before-last clothes and her voice so meek you'd have to hold her in your lap to hear it. And her—"
"That 'duddy-looking' little Miss Edgarton—meek?" mused the Older Man in sincere astonishment. "Meek? Why, man alive, she was born in a snow-shack on the Yukon River! She was at Pekin in the Boxer Rebellion! She's roped steers in Oklahoma! She's matched her embroidery silks to all the sunrise tints on the Himalayas! Just why in creation should she seem meek—do you suppose—to a—to a—twenty-five-dollar-a-week clerk like yourself?"
"'A twenty-five-dollar-a-week clerk like myself?'" the Younger Man fairly gasped. "Why—why—I'm the junior partner of the firm of Barton & Barton, stock-brokers! Why, we're the biggest—"
"Is that so?" quizzed the Older Man with feigned surprise. "Well—well—well! I beg your pardon. But now doesn't it all go to prove just exactly what I said in the beginning—that it doesn't behoove a single one of us to judge too hastily by appearances?"
As if fairly overwhelmed with embarrassment he sat staring silently off into space for several seconds. Then—"Speaking of this Miss Edgarton," he resumed genially, "have you ever exactly sought her out—as it were—and actually tried to get acquainted with her?"
"No," said Barton shortly. "Why, the girl must be thirty years old!"
"S—o?" mused the Older Man. "Just about your age?"
"I'm thirty-two," growled the Younger Man.
"I'm sixty-two, thank God!" acknowledged the Older Man. "And your gorgeous Miss Von Eaton—who bores you so—all of a sudden—is about—?"
"Twenty," prompted the Younger Man.
"Poor—senile—babe," ruminated the Older Man soberly.
"Eh?" gasped the Younger Man, edging forward in his chair. "Eh? 'Senile'? Twenty?"
"Sure!" grinned the Older Man. "Twenty is nothing but the 'sere and yellow leaf' of infantile caprice! But thirty is the jocund youth of character! On land or sea the Lord Almighty never made anything as radiantly, divinely young as—thirty! Oh, but thirty's the darling age in a woman!" he added with sudden exultant positiveness. "Thirty's the birth of individuality! Thirty's the—"
"Twenty has got quite enough individuality for me, thank you!" asserted Barton with some curtness.
"But it hasn't!" cried the Older Man hotly. "You've just confessed that it hasn't!" In an amazing impulse of protest he reached out and shook his freckled fist right under the Younger Man's nose. "Twenty, I tell you, hasn't got any individuality at all!" he persisted vehemently.
"Twenty isn't anything at all except the threadbare cloak of her father's idiosyncrasies, lined with her mother's made-over tact, trimmed with her great-aunt somebody's short-lipped smile, shrouding a brand-new frame of—God knows what!"
"Eh? What?" questioned the Younger Man uneasily.
"When a girl is twenty, I tell you," persisted the Older Man—"there's not one marrying man among us—Heaven help us!—who can swear whether her charm is Love's own permanent food or just Nature's temporary bait! At twenty, I tell you, there's not one man among us who can prove whether vivacity is temperament or just plain kiddishness; whether sweetness is real disposition or just coquetry; whether tenderness is personal discrimination or just sex; whether dumbness is stupidity or just brain hoarding its immature treasure; whether indeed coldness is prudery or just conscious passion banking its fires! The dear daredevil sweetheart whom you worship at eighteen will evolve, likelier than not, into a mighty sour prig at forty; and the dove-gray lass who led you to church with her prayer-book ribbons twice every Sunday will very probably decide to go on the vaudeville stage—when her children are just in the high school; and the dull-eyed wallflower whom you dodged at all your college dances will turn out, ten chances to one, the only really wonderful woman you know! But at thirty! Oh, ye gods, Barton! If a girl interests you at thirty you'll be utterly mad about her when she's forty—fifty—sixty! If she's merry at thirty, if she's ardent, if she's tender, it's her own established merriment, it's her own irreducible ardor, it's her—Why, man alive! Why—why—"
"Oh, for Heaven's sake!" gasped Barton. "Whoa there! Go slow! How in creation do you expect anybody to follow you?"
"Follow me? Follow me?" mused the Older Man perplexedly. Staring very hard at Barton, he took the opportunity to swallow rather loudly once or twice.
"Now speaking of Miss Edgarton," he resumed persistently, "now, speaking of this Miss Edgarton, I don't presume for an instant that you're looking for a wife on this trip, but are merely hankering a bit now and then for something rather specially diverting in the line of feminine companionship?"
"Well, what of it?" conceded the Younger Man.
"This of it," argued the Older Man. "If you are really craving the interesting why don't you go out and rummage around for it? Rummage around was what I said! Yes! The real hundred-cent-to-the-dollar treasures of Life, you know, aren't apt to be found labeled as such and lying round very loose on the smugly paved general highway! And astonishingly good looks and astonishingly good clothes are pretty nearly always equivalent to a sign saying, 'I've already been discovered, thank you!' But the really big sport of existence, young man, is to strike out somewhere and discover things for yourself!"
"Is—it?" scoffed Barton.
"It is!" asserted the Older Man. "The woman, I tell you, who fathoms heroism in the fellow that every one else thought was a knave—she's got something to brag about! The fellow who's shrewd enough to spy unutterable lovableness in the woman that no man yet has ever even remotely suspected of being lovable at all—God! It's like being Adam with the whole world virgin!"
"Oh, that may be all right in theory," acknowledged the Younger Man, with some reluctance. "But—"
"Now, speaking of Miss Edgarton," resumed the Older Man monotonously.
"Oh, hang Miss Edgarton!" snapped the Younger Man. "I wouldn't be seen talking to her! She hasn't any looks! She hasn't any style! She hasn't any—anything! Of all the hopelessly plain girls! Of all the—!"
"Now see here, my young friend," begged the Older Man blandly. "The fellow who goes about the world judging women by the sparkle of their eyes or the pink of their cheeks or the sheen of their hair—runs a mighty big risk of being rated as just one of two things, a sensualist or a fool."
"Are you trying to insult me?" demanded the Younger Man furiously.
Freakishly the Older Man twisted his thin-lipped mouth and one glowering eyebrow into a surprisingly sudden and irresistible smile.
"Why—no," he drawled. "Under all existing circumstances I should think I was complimenting you pretty considerably by rating you only as a fool."
"Eh?" jumped Barton again.
"U-m-m," mused the Older Man thoughtfully. "Now believe me, Barton, once and for all, there 's no such thing as a 'hopelessly plain woman'! Every woman, I tell you, is beautiful concerning the thing that she's most interested in! And a man's an everlasting dullard who can't ferret out what that interest is and summon its illuminating miracle into an otherwise indifferent face—"
"Is that so?" sniffed Barton.
Lazily the Older Man struggled to his feet and stretched his arms till his bones began to crack.
"Bah! What's beauty, anyway," he complained, "except just a question of where Nature has concentrated her supreme forces—in outgrowing energy, which is beauty; or ingrowing energy, which is brains! Now I like a little good looks as well as anybody," he confided, still yawning, "but when I see a woman living altogether on the outside of her face I don't reckon too positively on there being anything very exciting going on inside that face. So by the same token, when I see a woman who isn't squandering any centric fires at all on the contour of her nose or the arch of her eyebrows or the flesh-tints of her cheeks, it surely does pique my curiosity to know just what wonderful consuming energy she is busy about.
"A face isn't meant to be a living-room, anyway, Barton, but just a piazza where the seething, preoccupied soul can dash out now and then to bask in the breeze and refreshment of sympathy and appreciation. Surely then—it's no particular personal glory to you that your friend Miss Von Eaton's energy cavorts perpetually in the gold of her hair or the blue of her eyes, because rain or shine, congeniality or noncongeniality, her energy hasn't any other place to go. But I tell you it means some compliment to a man when in a bleak, dour, work-worn personality like the old Botany dame's for instance he finds himself able to lure out into occasional facial ecstasy the amazing vitality which has been slaving for Science alone these past fifty years. Mushrooms are what the old Botany dame is interested in, Barton. Really, Barton, I think you'd be surprised to see how extraordinarily beautiful the old Botany dame can be about mushrooms! Gleam of the first faint streak of dawn, freshness of the wildest woodland dell, verve of the long day's strenuous effort, flush of sunset and triumph, zeal of the student's evening lamp, puckering, daredevil smile of reckless experiment—"
"Say! Are you a preacher?" mocked the Younger Man sarcastically.
"No more than any old man," conceded the Older Man with unruffled good-nature.
"Old man?" repeated Barton, skeptically. In honest if reluctant admiration for an instant, he sat appraising his companion's extraordinary litheness and agility. "Ha!" he laughed. "It would take a good deal older head than yours to discover what that Miss Edgarton's beauty is!"
"Or a good deal younger one, perhaps," suggested the Older Man judicially. "But—but speaking of Miss Edgarton—" he began all over again.
"Oh—drat Miss Edgarton!" snarled the Younger Man viciously. "You've got Miss Edgarton on the brain! Miss Edgarton this! Miss Edgarton that! Miss Edgarton! Who in blazes is Miss Edgarton, anyway?"
"Miss Edgarton? Miss Edgarton?" mused the Older Man thoughtfully. "Who is she? Miss Edgarton? Why—no one special—except—just my daughter."
Like a fly plunged all unwittingly upon a sheet of sticky paper the Younger Man's hands and feet seemed to shoot out suddenly in every direction.
"Good Heavens!" he gasped. "Your daughter?" he mumbled. "Your daughter?" Every other word or phrase in the English language seemed to be stricken suddenly from his lips. "Your—your—daughter?" he began all over again. "Why—I—I—didn't know your name was Edgarton!" he managed finally to articulate.
An expression of ineffable triumph, and of triumph only, flickered in the Older Man's face.
"Why, that's just what I've been saying," he reiterated amiably. "You don't know anything!"
Fatuously the Younger Man rose to his feet, still struggling for speech—any old speech—a sentence, a word, a cough, anything, in fact, that would make a noise.
"Well, if little Miss Edgarton is—little Miss Edgarton," he babbled idiotically, "who in creation—are you?"
"Who am I?" stammered the Older Man perplexedly. As if the question really worried him, he sagged back a trifle against the sustaining wall of the house, and stood with his hands thrust deep in his pockets once more. "Who am I?" he repeated blandly. Again one eyebrow lifted. Again one side of his thin-lipped mouth twitched ever so slightly to the right. "Why, I'm just a man, Mr. Barton," he grinned very faintly, "who travels all over the world for the sake of whatever amusement he can get out of it. And some afternoons, of course, I get a good deal more amusement out of it—than I do others. Eh?"
Furiously the red blood mounted into the Young Man's cheeks. "Oh, I say, Edgarton!" he pleaded. Mirthlessly, wretchedly, a grin began to spread over his face. "Oh, I say!" he faltered. "I am a fool!"
The Older Man threw back his head and started to laugh.
At the first cackling syllable of the laugh, with appalling fatefulness Eve Edgarton herself loomed suddenly on the scene, in her old slouch hat, her gray flannel shirt, her weather-beaten khaki Norfolk and riding-breeches, looking for all the world like an extraordinarily slim, extraordinarily shabby little boy just starting out to play. Up from the top of one riding-boot the butt of a revolver protruded slightly.
With her heavy black eyelashes shadowing somberly down across her olive-tinted cheeks, she passed Barton as if she did not even see him and went directly to her father.
"I am riding," she murmured almost inaudibly.
"In this heat?" groaned her father.
"In this heat," echoed Eve Edgarton.
"There will surely be a thunder-storm," protested her father.
"There will surely be a thunder-storm," acquiesced Eve Edgarton.
Without further parleying she turned and strolled off again.
Just for an instant the Older Man's glance followed her. Just for an instant with quizzically twisted eyebrows his glance flashed back sardonically to Barton's suffering face. Then very leisurely he began to laugh again.
But right in the middle of the laugh—as if something infinitely funnier than a joke had smitten him suddenly—he stopped short, with one eyebrow stranded half-way up his forehead.
"Eve!" he called sharply. "Eve! Come back here a minute!"
Very laggingly from around the piazza corner the girl reappeared.
"Eve," said her father quite abruptly, "this is Mr. Barton! Mr. Barton, this is my daughter!"
Listlessly the girl came forward and proffered her hand to the Younger Man. It was a very little hand. More than that, it was an exceedingly cold little hand.
"How do you do, sir?" she murmured almost inaudibly.
With an expression of ineffable joy the Older Man reached out and tapped his daughter on the shoulder.
"It has just transpired, my dear Eve," he beamed, "that you can do this young man here an inestimable service—tell him something—teach him something, I mean—that he very specially needs to know!"
As one fairly teeming with benevolence he stood there smiling blandly into Barton's astonished face. "Next to the pleasure of bringing together two people who like each other," he persisted, "I know of nothing more poignantly diverting than the bringing together of people who—who—" Mockingly across his daughter's unconscious head, malevolently through his mask of utter guilelessness and peace, he challenged Barton's staring helplessness. "So—taken all in all," he drawled still beamingly, "there's nothing in the world—at this particular moment, Mr. Barton—that could amuse me more than to have you join my daughter in her ride this afternoon!"
"Ride with me?" gasped little Eve Edgarton.
"This afternoon?" floundered Barton.
"Oh—why—yes—of course! I'd be delighted! I'd be—be! Only—! Only I'm afraid that—!"
Deprecatingly with uplifted hand the Older Man refuted every protest. "No, indeed, Mr. Barton," he insisted. "Oh, no—no indeed—I assure you it won't inconvenience my daughter in the slightest! My daughter is very obliging! My daughter, indeed—if I may say so in all modesty—my daughter indeed is always a good deal of a—philanthropist!"
Then very grandiloquently, like a man in an old-fashioned picture, he began to back away from them, bowing low all the time, very, very low, first to Barton, then to his daughter, then to Barton again.
"I wish you both a very good afternoon!" he said. "Really, I see no reason why either of you should expect a single dull moment!"
Before the sickly grin on Barton's face his own smile deepened into actual unctuousness. But before the sudden woodeny set of his daughter's placid mouth his unctuousness twisted just a little bit wryly on his lips.
"After all, my dear young people," he asserted hurriedly, "there's just one thing in the world, you know, that makes two people congenial, and that is—that they both shall have arrived at exactly the same conclusion—by two totally different routes. It's got to be exactly the same conclusion, else there isn't any sympathy in it. But it's got to be by two totally different routes, you understand, else there isn't any talky-talk to it!"
Laboriously one eyebrow began to jerk its way up his forehead, and with a purely mechanical instinct he reached up drolly and pulled it down again. "So—as the initial test of your mutual congeniality this afternoon," he resumed, "I would therefore respectfully suggest as a special topic of conversation the consummate cheek of—yours truly, Paul Reymouth Edgarton!"
Starting to bow once more, he backed instead into the screen of the office window. Without even an expletive he turned, pushed in the screen, clambered adroitly through the aperture, and disappeared almost instantly from sight.
Very faintly from some far up-stairs region the thin, faint, single syllable of a laugh came floating down into the piazza corner.
Then just as precipitous as a man steps into any other hole, Barton stepped into the conversational topic that had just been so aptly provided for him.
"Is your father something of a—of a practical joker, Miss Edgarton?" he demanded with the slightest possible tinge of shrillness.
For the first time in Barton's knowledge of little Eve Edgarton she lifted her eyes to him—great hazel eyes, great bored, dreary, hazel eyes set broadly in a too narrow olive face.
"My father is generally conceded to be something of a joker, I believe," she said dully. "But it would never have occurred to me to call him a particularly practical one. I don't like him," she added without a flicker of expression.
"I don't either!" snapped Barton.
A trifle uneasily little Eve Edgarton went on. "Why—once when I was a tiny child—" she droned.
"I don't know anything about when you were a tiny child," affirmed Barton with some vehemence. "But just this afternoon—!"
In striking contrast to the cool placidity of her face one of Eve Edgarton's boot-toes began to tap-tap-tap against the piazza floor. When she lifted her eyes again to Barton their sleepy sullenness was shot through suddenly with an unmistakable flash of temper.
"Oh, for Heaven's sake, Mr. Barton!" she cried out. "If you insist upon riding with me, couldn't you please hurry? The afternoons are so short!"
"If I 'insist' upon riding with you?" gasped Barton.
Disconcertingly from an upper window the Older Man's face beamed suddenly down upon him. "Oh, don't mind anything she says," drawled the Older Man. "It's just her cunning, 'meek' little ways."
Precipitately Barton bolted for his room.
Once safely ensconced behind his closed door a dozen different decisions, a dozen different indecisions, rioted tempestuously through his mind. To go was just as awkward as not to go! Not to go was just as awkward as to go! Over and over and over one silly alternative chased the other through his addled senses. Then just as precipitately as he had bolted to his room he began suddenly to hurl himself into his riding-clothes, yanking out a bureau drawer here, slamming back a closet door there, rummaging through a box, tipping over a trunk, yet in all his fuming haste, his raging irritability, showing the same fastidious choice of shirt, tie, collar, that characterized his every public appearance.
Immaculate at last as a tailor's equestrian advertisement he came striding down again into the hotel office, only to plunge most inopportunely into Miss Von Eaton's languorous presence.
"Why, Jim!" gasped Miss Von Eaton. Exquisitely white and cool and fluffy and dainty, she glanced up perplexedly at him from her lazy, deep-seated chair. "Why, Jim!" she repeated, just a little bit edgily. "Riding? Riding? Well, of all things! You who wouldn't even play bridge with us this afternoon on account of the heat! Well, who in the world—who can it be that has cut us all out?"
Teasingly she jumped up and walked to the door with him, and stood there peering out beyond the cool shadow of his dark-blue shoulder into the dazzling road where, like so many figures thrust forth all unwittingly into the merciless flare of a spot-light, little shabby Eve Edgarton and three sweating horses waited squintingly in the dust.
"Oh!" cried Miss Von Eaton. "W-hy!" stammered Miss Von Eaton. "Good gracious!" giggled Miss Von Eaton. Then hysterically, with her hand clapped over her mouth, she turned and fled up the stairs to confide the absurd news to her mates.
With a face like a graven image Barton went on down the steps into the road. In one of his thirty-dollar riding-boots a disconcerting two-cent sort of squeak merely intensified his unhappy sensation of being motivated purely mechanically like a doll.
Two of the horses that whinnied cordially at his approach were rusty roans. The third was a chunky gray. Already on one of the roans Eve Edgarton sat perched with her bridle-rein oddly slashed in two, and knotted, each raw end to a stirrup, leaving her hands and arms still perfectly free to hug her mysterious books and papers to her breast.
"Good afternoon again, Miss Edgarton," smiled Barton conscientiously.
"Good afternoon again, Mr. Barton," echoed Eve Edgarton listlessly.
With frank curiosity he nodded toward her armful of papers. "Surely you're not going to carry—all that stuff with you?" he questioned.
"Yes, I am, Mr. Barton," drawled Eve Edgarton, scarcely above a whisper.
Worriedly he pointed to her stirrups. "But Great Scott, Miss Edgarton!" he protested. "Surely you're not reckless enough to ride like that? Just guiding with your feet?"
"I always—do, Mr. Barton," singsonged the girl monotonously.
"But the extra horse?" cried Barton. With a sudden little chuckle of relief he pointed to the chunky gray. There was a side-saddle on the chunky gray. "Who's going with us?"
Almost insolently little Eve Edgarton narrowed her sleepy eyes.
"I always taken an extra horse with me, Mr. Barton—Thank you!" she yawned, with the very faintest possible tinge of asperity.
"Oh!" stammered Barton quite helplessly. "O—h!" Heavily, as he spoke, he lifted one foot to his stirrup and swung up into his saddle. Through all his mental misery, through all his physical discomfort, a single lovely thought sustained him. There was only one really good riding road in that vicinity! And it was shady! And, thank Heaven, it was most inordinately short!
But Eve Edgarton falsified the thought before he was half through thinking it.
She swung her horse around, reared him to almost a perpendicular height, merged herself like so much fluid khaki into his great, towering, threatening neck, reacted almost instantly to her own balance again, and went plunging off toward the wild, rough, untraveled foot-hills and—certain destruction, any unbiased onlooker would have been free to affirm!
Snortingly the chunky gray went tearing after her. A trifle sulkily Barton's roan took up the chase.
Shade? Oh, ye gods! If Eve Edgarton knew shade when she saw it she certainly gave no possible sign of such intelligence. Wherever the galloping, grass-grown road hesitated between green-roofed forest and devastated wood-lot, she chose the devastated wood-lot! Wherever the trotting, treacherous pasture faltered between hobbly, rock-strewn glare and soft, lush-carpeted spots of shade, she chose the hobbly, rock-strewn glare! On and on and on! Till dust turned sweat! And sweat turned dust again! On and on and on! With the riderless gray thudding madly after her! And Barton's sulky roan balking frenziedly at each new swerve and turn!
It must have been almost three miles before Barton quite overtook her. Then in the scudding, transitory shadow of a growly thunder-cloud she reined in suddenly, waited patiently till Barton's panting horse was nose and nose with hers, and then, pushing her slouch hat back from her low, curl-fringed forehead, jogged listlessly along beside him with her pale olive face turned inquiringly to his drenched, beet-colored visage.
"What was it that you wanted me to do for you, Mr. Barton?" she asked with a laborious sort of courtesy. "Are you writing a book or something that you wanted me to help you about? Is that it? Is that what Father meant?"
"Am I writing a—book?" gasped Barton. Desperately he began to mop his forehead. "Writing a book? Am—I—writing—a—book? Heaven forbid!"
"What are you doing?" persisted the girl bluntly.
"What am I doing?" repeated Barton. "Why, riding with you! Trying to ride with you!" he called out grimly as, taking the lead impetuously again, Eve Edgarton's horse shied off at a rabbit and went sidling down a sand-bank into a brand-new area of rocks and stubble and breast-high blueberry bushes.
Barton liked to ride and he rode fairly well, but he was by no means an equestrian acrobat, and, quite apart from the girl's unquestionably disconcerting mannerisms, the foolish floppity presence of the riderless gray rattled him more than he could possibly account for. Yet to save his life he could not have told which would seem more childish—to turn back in temper, or to follow on—in the same.
More in helplessness than anything else he decided to follow on.
"On and on and on," would have described it more adequately.
Blacker and blacker the huddling thunder-caps spotted across the brilliant, sunny sky. Gaspier and gaspier in each lulling tree-top, in each hushing bird-song, in each drooping grass-blade, the whole torrid earth seemed to be sucking in its breath as if it meant never, never to exhale it again.
Once more in the midst of a particularly hideous glare the girl took occasion to rein in and wait for him, turning once more to his flushed, miserable countenance a little face inordinately pale and serene.
"If you're not writing a book, what would you like to talk about, Mr. Barton?" she asked conscientiously. "Would you like to talk about peat-bog fossils?"
"What?" gasped Barton.
"Peat-bog fossils," repeated the mild little voice. "Are you interested in peat-bog fossils? Or would you rather talk about the Mississippi River pearl fisheries? Or do you care more perhaps for politics? Would you like to discuss the relative financial conditions of the South American republics?"
Before the expression of blank despair in Barton's face, her own face fell a trifle. "No?" she ventured worriedly. "No? Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Barton, but you see—you see—I've never been out before with anybody—my own age. So I don't know at all what you would be interested in!"
"Never been out before with any one her own age?" gasped Barton to himself. Merciful Heavens! what was her "own age"? There in her little khaki Norfolk and old slouch hat she looked about fifteen years old—and a boy, at that. Altogether wretchedly he turned and grinned at her.
"Miss Edgarton," he said, "believe me, there's not one thing to-day under God's heaven that does interest me—except the weather!"
"The weather?" mused little Eve Edgarton thoughtfully. Casually, as she spoke, she glanced down across the horses' lathered sides and up into Barton's crimson face. "The weather? Oh!" she hastened anxiously to affirm. "Oh, yes! The meteorological conditions certainly are interesting this summer. Do you yourself think that it's a shifting of the Gulf Stream? Or just a—just a change in the paths of the cyclonic areas of low pressure?" she persisted drearily.
"Eh?" gasped Barton. "The weather? Heat was what I meant, Miss Edgarton! Just plain heat!—DAMNED HEAT—was what I meant—if I may be so explicit, Miss Edgarton."
"It is hot," conceded Eve apologetically.
"In fact," snapped Barton, "I think it's the hottest day I ever knew!"
"Really?" droned Eve Edgarton.
"Really!" snapped Barton.
It must have been almost half an hour before anybody spoke again. Then, "Pretty hot, isn't it?" Barton began all over again.
"Yes," said Eve Edgarton.
"In fact," hissed Barton through clenched teeth, "in fact I know it's the hottest day I ever knew!"
"Really?" droned Eve Edgarton.
"Really!" choked Barton.
Creakily under their hot, chafing saddles the sweltering roans lurched off suddenly through a great snarl of bushes into a fern-shaded spring-hole and stood ankle-deep in the boggy grass, guzzling noisily at food and drink, with the chunky gray crowding greedily against first one rider and then the other.
Quite against all intention Barton groaned aloud. His sun-scorched eyes seemed fairly shriveling with the glare. His wilted linen collar slopped like a stale poultice around his tortured neck. In his sticky fingers the bridle-rein itched like so much poisoned ribbon.
Reaching up one small hand to drag the soft flannel collar of her shirt a little farther down from her slim throat, Eve Edgarton rested her chin on her knuckles for an instant and surveyed him plaintively. "Aren't—we—having—an—awful time?" she whispered.
Even then if she had looked woman-y, girl-y, even remotely, affectedly feminine, Barton would doubtless have floundered heroically through some protesting lie. But to the frank, blunt, little-boyishness of her he succumbed suddenly with a beatific grin of relief. "Yes, we certainly are!" he acknowledged ruthlessly.
"And what good is it?" questioned the girl most unexpectedly.
"Not any good!" grunted Barton.
"To any one?" persisted the girl.
"Not to any one!" exploded Barton.
With an odd little gasp of joy the girl reached out dartingly and touched Barton on his sleeve. Her face was suddenly eager, active, transcendently vital.
"Then oh—won't you please—please—turn round—and go home—and leave me alone?" she pleaded astonishingly.
"Turn round and go home?" stammered Barton.
The touch on his sleeve quickened a little. "Oh, yes—please, Mr. Barton!" insisted the tremulous voice.
"You—you mean I'm in your way?" stammered Barton.
Very gravely the girl nodded her head. "Oh, yes, Mr. Barton—you're terribly in my way," she acknowledged quite frankly.
"Good Heavens," thought Barton, "is there a man in this? Is it a tryst? Well, of all things!"
Jerkily he began to back his horse out of the spring-hole, back—back—back through the intricate, overgrown pathway of flapping leaves and sharp, scratchy twigs.
"I am very sorry, Miss Edgarton, to have forced my presence on you so!" he murmured ironically.
"Oh, it isn't just you!" said little Eve Edgarton quite frankly. "It's all Father's friends." Almost threateningly as she spoke she jerked up her own horse's drizzling mouth and rode right at Barton as if to force him back even faster through the great snarl of underbrush. "I hate clever people!" she asserted passionately. "I hate them—hate them—hate them! I hate all Father's clever friends! I hate—"
"But you see I'm not clever," grinned Barton in spite of himself. "Oh, not clever at all," he reiterated with some grimness as an alder branch slapped him stingingly across one eye. "Indeed—" he dodged and ducked and floundered, still backing, backing, everlastingly backing—"indeed, your father has spent quite a lot of his valuable time this afternoon assuring me—and reassuring me—that—that I'm altogether a fool!"
Unrelentingly little Eve Edgarton's horse kept right on forcing him back—back—back.
"But if you're not one of Father's clever friends—who are you?" she demanded perplexedly. "And why did you insist so on riding with me this afternoon?" she cried accusingly.
"I didn't exactly—insist," grinned Barton with a flush of guilt. The flush of guilt added to the flush of heat made him look suddenly very confused.
Across Eve Edgarton's thin little face the flash of temper faded instantly into mere sulky ennui again.
"Oh, dear—oh, dear," she droned. "You—you didn't want to marry me, did you?"
Just for one mad, panic-stricken second the whole world seemed to turn black before Barton's eyes. His heart stopped beating. His ear-drums cracked. Then suddenly, astonishingly, he found himself grinning into that honest little face, and answering comfortably:
"Why, no, Miss Edgarton, I hadn't the slightest idea in the world of wanting to marry you."
"Thank God for that!" gasped little Eve Edgarton. "So many of Father's friends do want to marry me," she confided plaintively, still driving Barton back through that horrid scratchy thicket. "I'm so rich, you see," she confided with equal simplicity, "and I know so much—there's almost always somebody in Petrozavodsk or Broken Hill or Bashukulumbwe who wants to marry me."
"In—where?" stammered Barton.
"Why—in Russia!" said little Eve Edgarton with some surprise. "And Australia! And Africa! Were you never there?"
"I've been in Jersey City," babbled Barton with a desperate attempt at facetiousness.
"I was never there!" admitted little Eve Edgarton regretfully.
Vehemently with one hand she lunged forward and tried with her tiny open palm to push Barton's horse a trifle faster back through the intricate thicket. Then once in the open again she drew herself up with an absurd air of dignity and finality and bowed him from her presence.
"Good-by, Mr. Barton," she said. "Good-by, Mr. Barton."
"But Miss Edgarton—" stammered Barton perplexedly. Whatever his own personal joy and relief might be, the surrounding country nevertheless was exceedingly wild, and the girl an extravagantly long distance from home. "But Miss Edgarton—" he began all over again.
"Good-by, Mr. Barton! And thank you for going home!" she added conscientiously.
"But what will I tell your father?" worried Barton.
"Oh—hang Father," drawled the indifferent little voice.
"But the extra horse?" argued Barton with increasing perplexity. "The gray? If you've got some date up your sleeve, don't you want me to take the gray home with me, and get him out of your way?"
With sluggish resentment little Eve Edgarton lifted her eyes to his. "What would the gray go home with you for?" she asked tersely. "Why, how silly! Why, it's my—mother's horse! That is, we call it my mother's horse," she hastened to explain. "My mother's dead, you know. She's almost always been dead, I mean. So Father always makes me buy an extra place for my mother. It's just a trick of ours, a sort of a custom. I play around alone so much you know. And we live in such wild places!"
Casually she bent over and pushed the protruding butt of her revolver a trifle farther down into her riding boot. "S'long—Mr. Barton!" she called listlessly over the other, and started on, stumblingly, clatteringly, up the abruptly steep and precipitous mountain trail—a little dust-colored gnome on a dust-colored horse, with the dutiful gray pinking cautiously along behind her.
By some odd twist of his bridle-rein the gray's chunky neck arched slightly askew, and he pranced now and then from side to side of the trail as if guided thus by an invisible hand.
With an uncanny pucker along his spine as if he found himself suddenly deserting two women instead of one, Barton went fumbling and squinting out through the dusty green shade into the expected glare of the open pasture, and discovered, to his further disconcerting, that there was no glare left.
Before his astonished eyes he saw sun-scorched mountain-top, sun-scorched granite, sun-scorched field stubble turned suddenly to shade—no cool, translucent miracle of fluctuant greens, but a horrid, plushy, purple dusk under a horrid, plushy, purple sky, with a rip of lightning along the horizon, a galloping gasp of furiously oncoming wind, an almost strangling stench of dust-scented rain.
But before he could whirl his horse about, the storm broke! Heaven fell! Hell rose! The sides of the earth caved in! Chaos unspeakable tore north, east, south, west!
Snortingly for one single instant the roan's panic-stricken nostrils went blooming up into the cloud-burst like two parched scarlet poinsettias. Then man and beast as one flesh, as one mind, went bolting back through the rain-drenched, wind-ravished thicket to find their mates.
Up, up, up, everlastingly up, the mountain trail twisted and scrambled through the unholy darkness. Now and again a slippery stone tripped the roan's fumbling feet. Now and again a swaying branch slapped Barton stingingly across his straining eyes. All around and about them tortured forest trees moaned and writhed in the gale. Through every cavernous vista gray sheets of rain went flapping madly by them. The lightning was incredible. The thunder like the snarl of a glass sky shivering into inestimable fragments.
With every gasping breath beginning to rip from his poor lungs like a knifed stitch, the roan still faltered on each new ledge to whinny desperately to his mate. Equally futilely from time to time, Barton, with his hands cupped to his mouth, holloed—holloed—holloed—into the thunderous darkness.
Then at a sharp turn in the trail, magically, in a pale, transient flicker of light, loomed little Eve Edgarton's boyish figure, drenched to the skin apparently, wind-driven, rain-battered, but with hands in her pockets, slouch hat rakishly askew, strolling as nonchalantly down that ghastly trail as a child might come strolling down a stained-glassed, Persian-carpeted stairway to meet an expected guest.
In vaguely silhouetted greeting for one fleet instant a little khaki arm lifted itself full length into the air.
Then more precipitately than any rational thing could happen, more precipitately than any rational thing could even begin to happen, could even begin to begin to happen, without shock, without noise, without pain, without terror or turmoil, or any time at all to fight or pray—a slice of living flame came scaling through the darkness—and cut Barton's consciousness clean in two!
When Barton recovered the severed parts of his consciousness again and tried to pull them together, he found that the Present was strangely missing.
The Past and the Future, however, were perfectly plain to him. He was a young stock-broker. He remembered that quite distinctly! And just as soon as the immediate dizzy mystery had been cleared up he would, of course, be a young stock-broker again! But between this snug conviction as to the Past, this smug assurance as to the Future, his mind lay tugging and shivering like a man under a split blanket. Where in creation was the Present? Alternately he tried to yank both Past and Future across the chilly interim.
"There was—a—green and white piazza corner," vaguely his memory reminded him. "Never again!" some latent determination leaped to mock him. And there had been—some sort of an argument—with a drollish old man—concerning all homely girls in general and one very specially homely little girl in particular. And the—very specially homely little girl in particular had turned out to be the old man's—daughter!—"Never again!" his original impulse hastened to reassure him. And there had been a horseback ride—with the girl. Oh, yes—out of some strained sense of—of parental humor—there had been a forced horseback ride. And the weather hadbeen—hot—and black—and then suddenly very yellow. Yellow? Yellow? Dizzily the world began to whir through his senses—a prism of light, a fume of sulphur! Yellow? Yellow? What was yellow? What was anything? What was anything? Yes! That was just it! Where was anything?
Whimperingly, like a dream-dazed dog, the soul of him began to shiver with fear. Oh, ye gods! If returning consciousness would only manifest itself first by some one indisputable proof of a still undisintegrated body, some crisp, reassuring method of outlining one's corporeal edges, some sensory roll-call, as it were of—head, hands, feet, sides! But out of oblivion, out of space abysmal, out of sensory annihilation, to come vaporing back, back, back,—headless, armless, legless, trunkless, conscious only of consciousness, uncertain yet whether the full awakening prove itself—this world or the next! As sacred of Heaven—as—of hell! As—!
Then very, very slowly, with no realization of eyelids, with no realization of lifting his eyelids, Barton began to see things. And he thought he was lying on the soft outer edges of a gigantic black pansy, staring blankly through its glowing golden center into the droll, sketchy little face of the pansy.
And then suddenly, with a jerk that seemed almost to crack his spine, he sensed that the blackness wasn't a pansy at all, but just a round, earthy sort of blackness in which he himself lay mysteriously prone. And he heard the wind still roaring furiously away off somewhere. And he heard the rain still drenching and sousing away off somewhere. But no wind seemed to be tugging directly at him, and no rain seemed to be splashing directly on him. And instead of the cavernous golden crater of a supernatural pansy there was just a perfectly tame yellow farm-lantern balanced adroitly on a low stone in the middle of the mysterious round blackness.
And in the sallow glow of that pleasant lantern-light little Eve Edgarton sat cross-legged on the ground with a great pulpy clutter of rain-soaked magazines spread out all around her like a giant's pack of cards. And diagonally across her breast from shoulder to waistline her little gray flannel shirt hung gashed into innumerable ribbons.
To Barton's blinking eyes she looked exceedingly strange and untidy. But nothing seemed to concern little Eve Edgarton except that spreading circle of half-drowned papers.
"For Heaven's sake—wha—ght are you—do'?" mumbled Barton.
Out from her flickering aura of yellow lantern-light little Eve Edgarton peered forth quizzically into Barton's darkness. "Why—I'm trying to save—my poor dear—books," she drawled.
"Wha—ght?" struggled Barton. The word dragged on his tongue like a weight of lead. "Wha—ght?" he persisted desperately. "Wh—ere?—For—Heaven's sake—wha—ght's the matter—with us?"
Solicitously little Eve Edgarton lifted a soggy magazine-page to the lantern's warm, curving cheek.
"Why—we're in my cave," she confided. "In my very own—cave—you know—that I was headed for—all the time. We got—sort of—struck by lightning," she started to explain. "We—"
"Struck by—lightning?" gasped Barton. Mentally he started to jump up. But physically nothing moved. "My God! I'm paralyzed!" he screamed.
"Oh, no—really—I don't think so," crooned little Eve Edgarton.
With the faintest possible tinge of reluctance she put down her papers, picked up the lantern, and, crawling over to where Barton lay, sat down cross-legged again on the ground beside him, and began with mechanically alternate fist and palm to rubadubdub and thump-thump-thump and stroke-stroke-stroke his utterly helpless body.
"Oh—of—course—you've had—an awfully close call!" she drummed resonantly upon his apathetic chest. "But I've seen—three lightning people—a lot worse off than you!" she kneaded reassuringly into his insensate neck-muscles. "And—they—came out of it—all right—after a few days!" she slapped mercilessly into his faintly conscious sides.
Very slowly, very sluggishly, as his circulation quickened again, a horrid suspicion began to stir in Barton's mind; but it took him a long time to voice the suspicion in anything as loud and public as words.
"Miss—Edgarton!" he plunged at last quite precipitately. "Miss Edgarton! Do I seem to have—any shirt on?"
"No, you don't seem to, exactly, Mr. Barton," conceded little Eve Edgarton. "And your skin—"
From head to foot Barton's whole body strained and twisted in a futile effort to raise himself to at least one elbow. "Why, I'm stripped to my waist!" he stammered in real horror.
"Why, yes—of course," drawled little Eve Edgarton. "And your skin—" Imperturbably as she spoke she pushed him down flat on the ground again and began, with her hands edged vertically like two slim boards, to slash little blissful gashes of consciousness and pain into his frigid right arm. "You see—I had to take both your shirts," she explained, "and what was left of your coat—and all of my coat—to make a soft, strong rope to tie round under your arms so the horse could drag you."
"Did the roan drag me—'way up here?" groaned Barton a bit hazily.
With the faintest possible gasp of surprise little Eve Edgarton stopped slashing his arm and, picking up the lantern, flashed it disconcertingly across his blinking eyes and naked shoulders. "The roans are in heaven," she said quite simply. "It was Mother's horse that dragged you up here." As casually as if he had been a big doll she reached out one slim brown finger and drew his under lip a little bit down from his teeth. "My! But you're still blue!" she confided frankly. "I guess perhaps you'd better have a little more vodka."
Again Barton struggled vainly to raise himself on one elbow. "Vodka?" he stammered.
Again the lifted lantern light flashed disconcertingly across his face and shoulders. "Why, don't you remember—anything?" drawled little Eve Edgarton. "Not anything at all? Why, I must have worked over you two hours—artificial respiration, you know, and all that sort of thing—before I even got you up here! My! But you're heavy!" she reproached him frowningly. "Men ought to stay just as light as they possibly can, so when they get into trouble and things—it would be easier for women to help them. Why, last year in the China Sea—with Father and five of his friends—!"
A trifle shiveringly she shrugged her shoulders. "Oh, well, never mind about Father and the China Sea," she retracted soberly. "It's only that I'm so small, you see, and so flexible—I can crawl 'round most anywhere through port-holes and things—even if they're capsized. So we only lost one of them—one of Father's friends, I mean; and I never would have lost him if he hadn't been so heavy."
"Hours?" gasped Barton irrelevantly. With a wry twist of his neck he peered out through the darkness to where the freshening air, the steady, monotonous slosh-slosh-slosh of rain, the pale intermittent flare of stale lightning, proclaimed the opening of the cave.
"For Heaven's sake, wh-at—what time is it?" he faltered.
"Why, I'm sure I don't know," said little Eve Edgarton. "But I should guess it might be about eight or nine o'clock. Are you hungry?"
With infinite agility she scrambled to her knees and went darting off on all fours like a squirrel into some mysterious, clattery corner of the darkness from which she emerged at last with one little gray flannel arm crooked inclusively around a whole elbowful of treasure.
"There," she drawled. "There. There. There."
Only the soft earthy thud that accompanied each "There" pointed the slightest significance to the word. The first thud was a slim, queer, stone flagon of vodka. Wanly, like some far pinnacle on some far Russian fortress, its grim shape loomed in the sallow lantern light. The second thud was a dust-colored basket of dates from some green-spotted Arabian desert. Vaguely its soft curving outline merged into shadow and turf. The third thud was a battered old drinking-cup—dully silver, mysteriously Chinese. The fourth thud was a big glass jar of frankly American beef. Familiarly, reassuringly, its sleek sides glinted in the flickering flame.
"Supper," announced little Eve Edgarton.
As tomboyishly as a miniature brigand she crawled forward again into the meager square of lantern-tinted earth and, yanking a revolver out of one boot-leg and a pair of scissors from the other, settled herself with unassailable girlishness to jab the delicate scissors-points into the stubborn tin top of the meat jar.
As though the tin had been his own flesh the act goaded Barton half upright into the light—a brightly naked young Viking to the waist, a vaguely shadowed equestrian Fashion Plate to the feet.
"Well—I certainly never saw anybody like you before!" he glowered at her.
With equal gravity but infinitely more deliberation little Eve Edgarton returned the stare. "I never saw anybody like you before, either," she said enigmatically.
Barton winced back into the darkness. "Oh, I say," he stammered. "I wish I had a coat! I feel like a—like a—"
"Why—why?" droned little Eve Edgarton perplexedly. Out from the yellow heart of the pansy-blackness her small, grave, gnomish face peered after him with pristine frankness. "Why—why—I think you look—nice," said little Eve Edgarton.
With a really desperate effort Barton tried to clothe himself in facetiousness, if in nothing else. "Oh, very well," he grinned feebly. "If you don't mind—there's no special reason, I suppose, why I should."
Vaguely, blurrishly, like a figure on the wrong side of a stained-glass window, he began to loom up again into the lantern light. There was no embarrassment certainly about his hunger, nor any affectation at all connected with his thirst. Chokingly from the battered silver cup he gulped down the scorching vodka. Ravenously he attacked the salty meat, the sweet, cloying dates.
Watching him solemn-eyed above her own intermittent nibbles, the girl spoke out quite simply the thought that was uppermost in her mind. "This supper'll come in mighty handy, won't it, if we have to be out here all night, Mr. Barton?"
"If we have to be out here—all night?" faltered Barton.
Oh, ye gods! If just their afternoon ride together had been hotel talk—as of course it was within five minutes after their departure—what would their midnight return be? Or rather their non-return? Already through his addled brain he heard the monotonous creak-creak of rocking-chair gossip, the sly jest of the smoking-room, the whispered excitement of the kitchen—all the sophisticated old worldlings hoping indifferently for the best, all the unsophisticated old prudes yearning ecstatically for the worst!
"If we have to stay out here all night?" he repeated wildly. "Oh, what—oh, what will your father say, Miss Edgarton?"
"What will Father say?" drawled little Eve Edgarton. Thuddingly she set down the empty beef-jar. "Oh, Father'll say: What in creation is Eve out trying to save to-night? A dog? A cat? A three-legged deer?"
"Well, what do you expect to save?" quizzed Barton a bit tartly.
"Just—you," acknowledged little Eve Edgarton without enthusiasm. "And isn't it funny," she confided placidly, "that I've never yet succeeded in saving anything that I could take home with me—and keep! That's the trouble with boarding!"
In a vague, gold-colored flicker of appeal her lifted face flared out again into Barton's darkness. Too fugitive to be called a smile, a tremor of reminiscence went scudding across her mouth before the brooding shadow of her old slouch hat blotted out her features again.
"In India once," persisted the dreary little voice, "in India once, when Father and I were going into the mountains for the summer, there was a—there was a sort of fakir at one of the railway stations doing tricks with a crippled tiger-cub—a tiger-cub with a shot-off paw. And when Father wasn't looking I got off the train and went back—and I followed that fakir two days till he just naturally had to sell me the tiger-cub; he couldn't exactly have an Englishwoman following him indefinitely, you know. And I took the tiger-cub back with me to Father and he was very cunning—but—" Languorously the speech trailed off into indistinctness. "But the people at the hotel were—were indifferent to him," she rallied whisperingly. "And I had to let him go."
"You got off a train? In India? Alone?" snapped Barton. "And went following a dirty, sneaking fakir for two days? Well, of all the crazy—indiscreet—"
"Indiscreet?" mused little Eve Edgarton. Again out of the murky blackness her tilted chin caught up the flare of yellow lantern-light. "Indiscreet?" she repeated monotonously. "Who? I?"
"Yes—you," grunted Barton. "Traipsing 'round all alone—after—"
"But I never am alone, Mr. Barton," protested the mild little voice. "You see I always have the extra saddle, the extra railway ticket, the extra what-ever-it-is. And—and—" Caressingly a little gold-tipped hand reached out through the shadows and patted something indistinctly metallic. "My mother's memory? My father's revolver?" she drawled. "Why, what better company could any girl have? Indiscreet?" Slowly the tip of her little nose tilted up into the light. "Why, down in the Transvaal—two years ago," she explained painstakingly, "why, down in the Transvaal—two years ago—they called me the best-chaperoned girl in Africa. Indiscreet? Why, Mr. Barton, I never even saw an indiscreet woman in all my life. Men, of course, are indiscreet sometimes," she conceded conscientiously. "Down in the Transvaal two years ago, I had to shoot up a couple of men for being a little bit indiscreet, but—"
In one jerk Barton raised himself to a sitting posture.
"You 'shot up' a couple of men?" he demanded peremptorily.
Through the crook of a mud-smeared elbow shoving back the sodden brim of her hat, the girl glanced toward him like a vaguely perplexed little ragamuffin. "It was—messy," she admitted softly. Out from her snarl of storm-blown hair, tattered, battered by wind and rain, she peered up suddenly with her first frowning sign of self-consciousness. "If there's one thing in the world that I regret," she faltered deprecatingly, "it's a—it's—an untidy fight."
Altogether violently Barton burst out laughing. There was no mirth in the laugh, but just noise. "Oh, let's go home!" he suggested hysterically.
"Home?" faltered little Eve Edgarton. With a sluggish sort of defiance she reached out and gathered the big wet scrap-book to her breast. "Why, Mr. Barton," she said, "we couldn't get home now in all this storm and darkness and wash-out—to save our lives. But even if it were moonlight," she singsonged, "and starlight—and high-noon; even if there were—chariots—at the door, I'm not going home—now—till I've finished my scrap-book—if it takes a week."
"Eh?" jerked Barton. "What?" Laboriously he edged himself forward. For five hours now of reckless riding, of storm and privation, through death and disaster, the girl had clung tenaciously to her books and papers. What in creation was in them? "For Heaven's sake—Miss Edgarton—" he began.
"Oh, don't fuss—so," said little Eve Edgarton. "It's nothing but my paper-doll book."
"Your PAPER-DOLL BOOK?" stammered Barton. With another racking effort he edged himself even farther forward. "Miss Edgarton!" he asked quite frankly, "are you—crazy?"
"N—o! But—very determined," drawled little Eve Edgarton. With unruffled serenity she picked up a pulpy magazine-page from the ground in front of her and handed it to him. "And it—would greatly facilitate matters, Mr. Barton," she confided, "if you would kindly begin drying out some papers against your side of the lantern."
"What?" gasped Barton.
Very gingerly he took the pulpy sheet between his thumb and forefinger. It was a full-page picture of a big gas-range, and slowly, as he scanned it for some hidden charm or value, it split in two and fell soggily back to its mates. Once again for sheer nervous relief he burst out laughing.
Out of her diminutiveness, out of her leanness, out of her extraordinary litheness, little Eve Edgarton stared up speculatively at Barton's great hulking helplessness. Her hat looked humorous. Her hair looked humorous. Her tattered flannel shirt was distinctly humorous. But there was nothing humorous about her set little mouth.
"If you—laugh," she threatened, "I'll tip you over backward again—and—trample on you."
"I believe you would!" said Barton with a sudden sobriety more packed with mirth than any laugh he had ever laughed.
"Well, I don't care," conceded the girl a bit sheepishly. "Everybody laughs at my paper-doll book! Father does! Everybody does! When I'm rearranging their old mummy collections—and cataloguing their old South American birds—or shining up their old geological specimens—they think I'm wonderful. But when I try to do the teeniest—tiniest thing that happens to interest me—they call me 'crazy'! So that's why I come 'way out here to this cave—to play," she whispered with a flicker of real shyness. "In all the world," she confided, "this cave is the only place I've ever found where there wasn't anybody to laugh at me."
Between her placid brows a vindictive little frown blackened suddenly. "That's why it wasn't specially convenient, Mr. Barton—to have you ride with me this afternoon," she affirmed. "That's why it wasn't specially convenient to—to have you struck by lightning this afternoon!" Tragically, with one small brown hand, she pointed toward the great water-soaked mess of magazines that surrounded her. "You see," she mourned, "I've been saving them up all summer—to cut out—to-day! And now?—Now—? We're sailing for Melbourne Saturday!" she added conclusively.
"Well—really!" stammered Barton. "Well—truly!—Well, of all—damned things! Why—what do you want me to do? Apologize to you for having been struck by lightning?" His voice was fairly riotous with astonishment and indignation. Then quite unexpectedly one side of his mouth began to twist upward in the faintest perceptible sort of a real grin.
"When you smile like that you're—quite pleasant," murmured little Eve Edgarton.
"Is that so?" grinned Barton. "Well, it wouldn't hurt you to smile just a tiny bit now and then!"
"Wouldn't it?" said little Eve Edgarton. Thoughtfully for a moment, with her scissors poised high in the air, she seemed to be considering the suggestion. Then quite abruptly again she resumed her task of prying some pasted object out of her scrap-book. "Oh, no, thank you, Mr. Barton," she decided. "I'm much too bored—all the while—to do any smiling."
"Bored?" snapped Barton. Staring perplexedly into her dreary, meek little face, something deeper, something infinitely subtler than mere curiosity, wakened precipitately in his consciousness. "For Heaven's sake, Miss Edgarton!" he stammered. "From the Arctic Ocean to the South Seas, if you've seen all the things that you must have seen, if you've done all the things that you must have done—WHY SHOULD YOU LOOK SO BORED?"
Flutteringly the girl's eyes lifted and fell. "Why, I'm bored, Mr. Barton," drawled little Eve Edgarton, "I'm bored because—I'm sick to death—of seeing all the things I've seen. I'm sick to death of—doing all the things I've done." With little metallic snips of sound she concentrated herself and her scissors suddenly upon the mahogany-colored picture of a pianola.
"Well, what do you want?" quizzed Barton.
In a sullen, turgid sort of defiance the girl lifted her somber eyes to his. "I want to stay home—like other people—and have a house," she wailed. "I want a house—and—the things that go with a house: a cat, and the things that go with a cat; kittens, and the things that go with kittens; saucers of cream, and the things that go with saucers of cream; ice-chests, and—and—" Surprisingly into her languid, sing-song tone broke a sudden note of passion. "Bah!" she snapped. "Think of going all the way to India just to plunge your arms into the spooky, foamy Ganges and 'make a wish'! 'What do you wish?' asks Father, pleased-as a Chessy-puss. Humph! I wish it was the soap-suds in my own wash-tub!—Or gallivanting down to British Guiana just to smell the great blowsy water-lilies in the canals! I'd rather smell burned crackers in my own cook stove!"
"But you'll surely have a house—some time," argued Barton with real sympathy. Quite against all intention the girl's unexpected emotion disturbed him a little. "Every girl gets a house—some time!" he insisted resolutely.
"N—o, I don't—think so," mused Eve Edgarton judicially. "You see," she explained with soft, slow deliberation, "you see, Mr. Barton, only people who live in houses know people who live in houses! If you're a nomad you meet—only nomads! Campers mate just naturally with campers, and ocean-travelers with ocean-travelers—and red-velvet hotel-dwellers with red-velvet hotel-dwellers. Oh, of course, if Mother had lived it might have been different," she added a trifle more cheerfully. "For, of course, if Mother had lived I should have been—pretty," she asserted calmly, "or interesting-looking, anyway. Mother would surely have managed it—somehow; and I should have had a lot of beaux—young men beaux I mean, like you. Father's friends are all so gray!—Oh, of course, I shall marry—some time," she continued evenly. "Probably I'm going to marry the British consul at Nunko-Nono. He's a great friend of Father's—and he wants me to help him write a book on 'The Geologic Relationship of Melanesia to the Australian Continent'!"
Dully her voice rose to its monotone: "But I don't suppose—we shall live in a—house," she moaned apathetically. "At the best it will probably be only a musty room or two up over the consulate—and more likely than not it won't be anything at all except a nipa hut and a typewriter-table."
As if some mote of dust disturbed her, suddenly she rubbed the knuckles of one hand across her eyes. "But maybe we'll have—daughters," she persisted undauntedly. "And maybe they'll have houses!"
"Oh, shucks!" said Barton uneasily. "A—a house isn't so much!"
"It—isn't?" asked little Eve Edgarton incredulously. "Why—why—you don't mean—"
"Don't mean—what?" puzzled Barton.
"Do—you—live—in—a—house?" asked little Eve Edgarton abruptly. Her hands were suddenly quiet in her lap, her tousled head cocked ever so slightly to one side, her sluggish eyes incredibly dilated.
"Why, of course I live in a house," laughed Barton.
"O—h," breathed little Eve Edgarton. "Re—ally? It must be wonderful." Wiltingly her eyes, her hands, drooped back to her scrap-book again. "In—all—my—life," she resumed monotonously, "I've never spent a single night—in a real house."
"What?" questioned Barton.
"Oh, of course," explained the girl dully, "of course I've spent no end of nights in hotels and camps and huts and trains and steamers and—But—What color is your house?" she asked casually.
"Why, brown, I guess," said Barton.
"Brown, you 'guess'?" whispered the girl pitifully. "Don't you—know?"
"No, I wouldn't exactly like to swear to it," grinned Barton a bit sheepishly.
Again the girl's eyes lifted just a bit over-intently from the work in her lap.
"What color is the wall-paper—in your own room?" she asked casually. "Is it—is it a—dear pinkie-posie sort of effect? Or just plain—shaded stripes?"
"Why, I'm sure I don't remember," acknowledged Barton worriedly. "Why, it's just paper, you know—paper," he floundered helplessly. "Red, green, brown, white—maybe it's white," he asserted experimentally. "Oh, for goodness' sake—how should I know!" he collapsed at last. "When my sisters were home from Europe last year, they fixed the whole blooming place over for—some kind of a party. But I don't know that I ever specially noticed just what it was that they did to it. Oh, it's all right, you know!" he attested with some emphasis. "Oh, it's all right enough—early Jacobean, or something like that—'perfectly corking,' everybody calls it! But it's so everlasting big, and it costs so much to run it, and I've lost such a wicked lot of money this year, that I'm not going to keep it after this autumn—if my sisters ever send me their Paris address so I'll know what to do with their things."
Frowningly little Eve Edgarton bent forward.
"'Some kind of a party?'" she repeated in unconscious mimicry. "You mean you gave a party? A real Christian party? As recently as last winter? And you can't even remember what kind of a party it was?" Something in her slender brown throat fluttered ever so slightly. "Why, I've never even been to a Christian party—in all my life!" she said. "Though I can dance in every language of Asia!
"And you've got sisters?" she stammered. "Live silk-and-muslin sisters? And you don't even know where they are? Why, I've never even had a girl friend in all my life!"
Incredulously she lifted her puzzled eyes to his. "And you've got a house?" she faltered. "And you're not going to keep it? A real—truly house? And you don't even know what color it is? You don't even know what color your own room is? And I know the name of every house-paint there is in the world," she muttered, "and the name of every wall-paper there is in the world, and the name of every carpet, and the name of every curtain, and the name of—everything. And I haven't got any house at all—"
Then startlingly, without the slightest warning, she pitched forward suddenly on her face and lay clutching into the turf—a little dust-colored wisp of a boyish figure sobbing its starved heart out against a dust-colored earth.
"Why—what's the matter!" gasped Barton. "Why!—Why—Kid!" Very laboriously with his numbed hands, with his strange, unresponsive legs, he edged himself forward a little till he could just reach her shoulder. "Why—Kid!" he patted her rather clumsily. "Why, Kid—do you mean—"
Slowly through the darkness Eve Edgarton came crawling to his side. Solemnly she lifted her eyes to Barton's. "I'll tell you something that Mother told me," she murmured. "This is it: 'Your father is the most wonderful man that ever lived,' my mother whispered to me quite distinctly. 'But he'll never make any home for you—except in his arms; and that is plenty Home-Enough for a wife—but not nearly Home-Enough for a daughter! And—and—"
"Why, you say it as if you knew it by heart," interrupted Barton.
"Why, of course I know it by heart!" cried little Eve Edgarton almost eagerly. "My mother whispered it to me, I tell you! The things that people shout at you—you forget in half a night. But the things that people whisper to you, you remember to your dying day!"
"If I whisper something to you," said Barton quite impulsively, "will you promise to remember it to your dying day?"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Barton," droned little Eve Edgarton.
Abruptly Barton reached out and tilted her chin up whitely toward him. "In this light," he whispered, "with your hat pushed back like—that!—and your hair fluffed up like—that!—and the little laugh in your eyes!—and the flush!—and the quiver!—you look like an—elf! A bronze and gold elf! You're wonderful! You're magical! You ought always to dress like that! Somebody ought to tell you about it! Woodsy, storm-colored clothes with little quick glints of light in them! Paquin or some of those people could make you famous!"
As spontaneously as he had touched her he jerked his hand away, and, snatching up the lantern, flashed it bluntly on her astonished face.
For one brief instant her hand went creeping up to the tip of her chin. Then very soberly, like a child with a lesson, she began to repeat Barton's impulsive phrases.
"'In this light,'" she droned, "'with your hat pushed back like that—and your hair fluffed up like that—and the—the—'" More unexpectedly then than anything that could possibly have happened she burst out laughing—a little low, giggly, school-girlish sort of laugh. "Oh, that's easy to remember!" she announced. Then, all one narrow black silhouette again, she crouched down into the semi-darkness.
"For a lady," she resumed listlessly, "who rode side-saddle and really enjoyed hiking 'round all over the sticky face of the globe, my mother certainly did guess pretty keenly just how things were going to be with me. I'll tell you what she said to sustain me," she repeated dreamily, "'Any foolish woman can keep house, but the woman who travels with your father has got to be able to keep the whole wide world for him! It's nations that you'll have to put to bed! And suns and moons and stars that you'll have to keep scoured and bright! But with the whole green earth for your carpet, and shining heaven for your roof-tree, and God Himself for your landlord, now wouldn't you be a fool, if you weren't quite satisfied?'"
"'If—you—weren't—quite satisfied,'" finished Barton mumblingly.
Little Eve Edgarton lifted her great eyes, soft with sorrow, sharp with tears, almost defiantly to Barton's.
"That's—what—Mother said," she faltered. "But all the same—I'd RATHER HAVE A HOUSE!"
"Why, you poor kid!" said Barton. "You ought to have a house! It's a shame! It's a beastly shame! It's a—"
Very softly in the darkness his hand grazed hers.
"Did you touch my hand on purpose, or just accidentally?" asked Eve Edgarton, without a flicker of expression on her upturned, gold-colored face.
"Why, I'm sure I don't know," laughed Barton. "Maybe—maybe it was a little of each."
With absolute gravity little Eve Edgarton kept right on staring at him. "I don't know whether I should ever specially like you—or not, Mr. Barton," she drawled. "But you are certainly very beautiful!"
"Oh, I say!" cried Barton wretchedly. With a really desperate effort he struggled almost to his feet, tottered for an instant, and then came sagging down to the soft earth again—a great, sprawling, spineless heap, at little Eve Edgarton's feet.
Unflinchingly, as if her wrists were built of steel wires, the girl jumped up and pulled and tugged and yanked his almost dead weight into a sitting posture again.
"My! But you're chock-full of lightning!" she commiserated with him.
Out of the utter rage and mortification of his helplessness Barton could almost have cursed her for her sympathy. Then suddenly, without warning, a little gasp of sheer tenderness escaped him.
"Eve Edgarton," he stammered, "you're—a—brick! You—you must have been invented just for the sole purpose of saving people's lives. Oh, you've saved mine all right!" he acknowledged soberly. "And all this black, blasted night you've nursed me—and fed me—and jollied me—without a whimper about yourself—without—a—" Impulsively he reached out his numb-palmed hand to her, and her own hand came so cold to it that it might have been the caress of one ghost to another. "Eve Edgarton," he reiterated, "I tell you—you're a brick! And I'm a fool—and a slob—and a mutt-head—even when I'm not chock-full of lightning, as you call it! But if there's ever anything I can do for you!"
"What did you say?" muttered little Eve Edgarton.
"I said you were a brick!" repeated Barton a bit irritably.
"Oh, no, I didn't mean—that," mused the girl. "But what was the—last thing you said?"
"Oh!" grinned Barton more cheerfully. "I said—if there was ever anything that I could do for you, anything—"
"Would you rent me your attic?" asked little Eve Edgarton.
"Would I rent you my attic?" stammered Barton. "Why in the world should you want to hire my attic?"
"So I could buy pretty things in Siam—or Ceylon—or any other queer country—and have some place to send them," said little Eve Edgarton. "Oh, I'd pay the express, Mr. Barton," she hastened to assure him. "Oh, I promise you there never would be any trouble about the express! Or about the rent!" Expeditiously as she spoke she reached for her hip pocket and brought out a roll of bills that fairly took Barton's breath away. "If there's one thing in the world, you know, that I've got, it's money," she confided perfectly simply. "So you see, Mr. Barton," she added with sudden wistfulness, "there's almost nothing on the face of the globe that I couldn't have—if I only had some place to put it." Without further parleying she proffered the roll of bills to him.
"Miss Edgarton! Are you crazy?" Barton asked again quite precipitously.
Again the girl answered his question equally frankly, and without offense. "Oh, no," she said. "Only very determined."
"Determined about what?" grinned Barton in spite of himself.
"Determined about an attic," drawled little Eve Edgarton.
With an unwonted touch of vivacity she threw out one hand in a little, sharp gesture of appeal; but not a tone of her voice either quickened or deepened.
"Why, Mr. Barton," she droned, "I'm thirty years old—and ever since I was born I've been traveling all over the world—in a steamer trunk. In a steamer trunk, mind you. With Father always standing over every packing to make sure that we never carry anything that—isn't necessary. With Father, I said," she re-emphasized by a sudden distinctness. "You know Father!" she added significantly.
"Yes—I know 'Father,'" assented Barton with astonishing glibness.
Once again the girl threw out her hand in an incongruous gesture of appeal.
"The things that Father thinks are necessary!" she exclaimed softly. Noiselessly as a shadow she edged herself forward into the light till she faced Barton almost squarely. "Maybe you think it's fun, Mr. Barton," she whispered. "Maybe you think it's fun—at thirty years of age—with all your faculties intact—to own nothing in the world except—except a steamer trunkful of the things that Father thinks are necessary!"
Very painstakingly on the fingers of one hand she began to enumerate the articles in question. "Just your riding togs," she said, "and six suits of underwear—and all the United States consular reports—and two or three wash dresses and two 'good enough' dresses—and a lot of quinine—and—a squashed hat—and—and—" Very faintly the ghost of a smile went flickering over her lips—"and whatever microscopes and specimen-cases get crowded out of Father's trunk. What's the use, Mr. Barton," she questioned, "of spending a whole year investigating the silk industry of China—if you can't take any of the silks home? What's the use, Mr. Barton, of rolling up your sleeves and working six months in a heathen porcelain factory—just to study glaze—if you don't own a china-closet in any city on the face of the earth? Why—sometimes, Mr. Barton," she confided, "it seems as if I'd die a horrible death if I couldn't buy things the way other people do—and send them somewhere—even if it wasn't 'home'! The world is so full of beautiful things," she mused. "White enamel bath-tubs—and Persian rugs—and the most ingenious little egg-beaters—and—"
"Eh?" stammered Barton. Quite desperately he rummaged his brain for some sane-sounding expression of understanding and sympathy.
"You could, I suppose," he ventured, not too intelligently, "buy the things and give them to other people."
"Oh, yes, of course," conceded little Eve Edgarton without enthusiasm. "Oh, yes, of course, you can always buy people the things they want. But understand," she said, "there's very little satisfaction in buying the things you want to give to people who don't want them. I tried it once," she confided, "and it didn't work.
"The winter we were in Paraguay," she went on, "in some stale old English newspaper I saw an advertisement of a white bedroom set. There were eleven pieces, and it was adorable, and it cost eighty-two pounds—and I thought after I'd had the fun of unpacking it, I could give it to a woman I knew who had a tea plantation. But the instant she got it—she painted it—green! Now when you send to England for eleven pieces of furniture because they are white," sighed little Eve Edgarton, "and have them crated—because they're white—and sent to sea because they're white—and then carried overland—miles and miles and miles—on Indians' heads—because they're white, you sort of want 'em to stay white. Oh, of course it's all right," she acknowledged patiently. "The Tea Woman was nice, and the green paint by no means—altogether bad. Only, looking back now on our winter in Paraguay, I seem to have missed somehow the particular thrill that I paid eighty-two pounds and all that freightage for."
"Yes, of course," agreed Barton. He could see that.
"So if you could rent me your attic—" she resumed almost blithely.
"But my dear child," interrupted Barton, "what possible—"
"Why—I'd have a place then to send things to," argued little Eve Edgarton.
"But you're off on the high seas Saturday, you say," laughed Barton.
"Yes, I know," explained little Eve Edgarton just a bit impatiently. "But the high seas are so dull, Mr. Barton. And then we sail so long!" she complained. "And so far!—via this, via that, via every other stupid old port in the world! Why, it will be months and months before we ever reach Melbourne! And of course on every steamer," she began to monotone, "of course on every steamer there'll be some one with a mixed-up collection of shells or coins—and that will take all my mornings. And of course on every steamer there'll be somebody struggling with the Chinese alphabet or the Burmese accents—and that will take all my afternoons. But in the evenings when people are just having fun," she kindled again, "and nobody wants me for anything, why, then you see I could steal 'way up in the bow—where you're not allowed to go—and think about my beautiful attic. It's pretty lonesome," she whispered, "all snuggled up there alone with the night, and the spray and the sailors' shouts, if you haven't got anything at all to think about except just 'What's ahead?—What's ahead?—What's ahead?' And even that belongs to God," she sighed a bit ruefully.
With a quick jerk she edged herself even closer to Barton and sat staring up at him with her tousled head cocked on one side like an eager terrier.
"So if you just—could, Mr. Barton!" she began all over again. "And oh, I know it couldn't be any real bother to you!" she hastened to reassure him. "Because after Saturday, you know, I'll probably never—never be in America again!"
"Then what satisfaction," laughed Barton, "could you possibly get in filling up an attic with things that you will never see again?"
"What satisfaction?" repeated little Eve Edgarton perplexedly. "What satisfaction?" Between her placid brows a very black frown deepened. "Why, just the satisfaction," she said, "of knowing before you die, that you had definitely diverted to your own personality that much specific treasure out of the—out of the—world's chaotic maelstrom of generalities."
"Eh?" said Barton. "What? For Heaven's sake say it again!"
"Why—just the satisfaction—" began Eve Edgarton. Then abruptly the sullen lines grayed down again around her mouth.
"It seems funny to me, Mr. Barton," she almost whined, "that anybody as big as you are—shouldn't be able to understand anybody as little as—I am. But if I only had an attic!" she cried out with apparent irrelevance. "Oh, if just once in my whole life I could have even so much as an atticful of home! Oh, please—please—please, Mr. Barton!" she pleaded. "Oh, please!"
Precipitously she lifted her small brown face to his, and in her eyes he saw the strangest little unfinished expression flame up suddenly and go out again, a little fleeting expression so sweet, so shy, so transcendently lovely, that if it had ever lived to reach her frowning brow, her sulky little mouth, her—!
Then startlingly into his stare, into his amazement, broke a great white glare through the opening of the cave.
"My God!" he winced, with his elbow across his eyes.
"Why, it isn't lightning!" laughed little Eve Edgarton. "It's the moon!" Quick as a sprite she flashed to her feet and ran out into the moonlight. "We can go home now!" she called back triumphantly over her shoulder.
"Oh, we can, can we?" snapped Barton. His nerves were strangely raw. He struggled to his knees, and tottered there watching the cheeky little moonbeams lap up the mystery of the cave, and scare the yellow lantern-flame into a mere sallow glow.
Poignantly from the forest he heard Eve Edgarton's voice calling out into the night. "Come—Mother's—horse! Come—Mother's—horse H—o—o, hoo! Come—come—come!" Softly above the crackle of twigs, the thud of a hoof, the creak of a saddle, he sensed the long, tremulous, answering whinny. Then almost like a silver apparition the girl's figure and the horse's seemed to merge together before him in the moonlight.
"Well—of—all—things!" stammered Barton.
"Oh, the horse is all right. I thought he'd stay 'round," called the girl. "But he's wild as a hawk—and it's going to be the dickens of a job, I'm afraid, to get you up."
Half walking, half crawling, Barton emerged from the cave. "To get me up?" he scoffed. "Well, what do you think you're going to do?" Limply as he asked he sank back against the support of a tree.
"Why, I think," drawled Eve Edgarton, "I think—very naturally—that you're going to ride—and I'm going to walk—back to the hotel."
"Well, I am not!" snapped Barton. "Well, you are not!" he protested vehemently. "For Heaven's sake, Miss Edgarton, why don't you go scooting back on the gray and send a wagon or something for me?"
"Why, because it would make—such a fuss," droned little Eve Edgarton drearily. "Doors would bang—and lights would blaze—and somebody'd scream—and—and—you make so much fuss when you're born," she said, "and so much fuss when you die—don't you think it's sort of nice to keep things as quietly to yourself as you can all the rest of your days?"
"Yes, of course," acknowledged Barton. "But—"
"But NOTHING!" stamped little Eve Edgarton with sudden passion. "Oh, Mr. Barton—won't you please hurry! It's almost dawn now! And the nice hotel cook is very sick in a cot bed. And I promised her faithfully this noon that I'd make four hundred muffins for breakfast!"
"Oh, confound it!" said Barton.
Stumblingly he reached the big gray's side.
"But it's miles!" he protested in common decency. "Miles!—and miles! Rough walking, too, darned rough! And your poor little feet—"
"I don't walk particularly with my 'poor little feet,'" gibed Eve Edgarton. "Most especially, thank you, Mr. Barton, I walk with my big wanting-to-walk!"
"Oh," said Barton. "O—h." The bones in his knees began suddenly to slump like so many knots of tissue-paper. "Oh—all right—Eve!" he called out a bit hazily.
Then slowly and laboriously, with a very good imitation of meekness, he allowed himself to be pulled and pushed and jerked to the top of an old tree-stump, and from there at last, with many tricks and tugs and subterfuges, to the cramping side-saddle of the restive, rearing gray. Helplessly in the clear white moonlight he watched the girl's neck muscles cord and strain. Helplessly in the clear white moonlight he heard the girl's breath rip and tear like a dry sob out of her gasping lungs. And then at last, blinded with sweat, dizzy with weakness, as breathless as herself, as wrenched, as triumphant, he found himself clinging fast to a worn suede pommel, jogging jerkily down the mountainside with Eve Edgarton's doll-sized hand dragging hard on the big gray's curb and her whole tiny weight shoved back aslant and astrain against the big gray's too eager shoulder—little droll, colorless, "meek" Eve Edgarton, after her night of stress and terror, with her precious scrap-book still hugged tight under one arm striding stanchly home through the rough-footed, woodsy night to "make four hundred muffins for breakfast!"
At the first crook in the trail she glanced back hastily over her shoulder into the rustling shadows. "Good-by, Cave!" she called softly. "Good-by, Cave!" And once when some tiny woods-animal scuttled out from under her feet she smiled up a bit appealingly at Barton. Several times they stopped for water at some sudden noisy brook. And once, or twice, or even three times perhaps, when some blinding daze of dizziness overwhelmed him, she climbed up with one foot into the roomy stirrup and steadied his swaying, unfeeling body against her own little harsh, reassuring, flannel-shirted breast.
Mile after mile through the jet-black lattice-work of the tree-tops the August moon spotted brightly down on them. Mile after mile through rolling pastures the moon-plaited stubble crackled and sucked like a sheet of wet ice under their feet, then roads began—mere molten bogs of mud and moonlight; and little frail roadside bushes drunk with rain lay wallowing helplessly in every hollow.
Out of this pristine, uninhabited wilderness the hotel buildings loomed at last with startling conventionality. Even before their discreetly shuttered windows Barton winced back again with a sudden horrid new realization of his half-nakedness.
"For Heaven's sake!" he cried, "let's sneak in the back way somewhere! Oh Lordy!—what a sight I am to meet your father!"
"What a sight you are to—meet my father?" repeated Eve Edgarton with astonishment. "Oh, please don't insist on waking up Father," she begged. "He hates so to be waked up. Oh, of course if I'd been hurt it would have been courteous of you to tell him," she explained seriously. "But, oh, I'm sure he wouldn't like your waking him up just to tell him that you got hurt!"
Softly under her breath she began to whistle toward a shadow in the stable-yard. "Usually," she whispered, "there's a sleepy stable-boy lying round here somewhere. Oh—Bob!" she summoned.
Rollingly the shadow named "Bob" struggled to its very real feet.
"Here, Bob!" she ordered. "Come help Mr. Barton. He's pretty badly off. We got sort of struck by lightning. And two of us—got killed. Go help him up-stairs. Do anything he wants. But don't make any fuss. He'll be all right in the morning."
Gravely she put out her hand to Barton, and nodded to the boy.
"Good night!" she said. "And good night, Bob!"
Shrewdly for a moment she stood watching them out of sight, shivered a little at the clatter of a box kicked over in some remote shed, and then swinging round quickly, ripped the hot saddle from the big gray's back, slipped the bit from his tortured tongue, and, turning him loose with one sharp slap on his gleaming flank, yanked off her own riding-boots and went scudding off in her stocking-feet through innumerable doors and else till, reaching the great empty office, she caromed off suddenly up three flights of stairs to her own apartment.
Once in her room her little traveling-clock told her it was a quarter of three.
"Whew!" she said. Just "Whew!" Very furiously at the big porcelain washbowl she began to splash and splash and splash. "If I've got to make four hundred muffins," she said, "I surely have got to be whiter than snow!"
Roused by the racket, her father came irritably and stood in the doorway.
"Oh, my dear Eve!" he complained, "didn't you get wet enough in the storm? And for mercy's sake where have you been?"
Out of the depths of her dripping hair and her big plushy bath-towel little Eve Edgarton considered her father only casually.
"Don't delay me!" she said, "I've got to make four hundred muffins! And I'm so late I haven't even time to change my clothes! We got struck by lightning," she added purely incidentally. "That is—sort of struck by lightning. That is, Mr. Barton got sort of struck by lightning. And oh, glory, Father!" her voice kindled a little. "And, oh, glory, Father, I thought he was gone! Twice in the hours I was working over him he stopped breathing altogether!"