BY ALICE HEGAN RICE
Author of "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch," "Lovey Mary," "Sandy," etc.
With Illustrations by LEON GUIPON
NEW YORK THE CENTURY CO. 1909
Copyright, 1908, 1909, by The Century Co.
Published, April, 1909
THE DE VINNE PRESS
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
PAGE "He read impressively" Frontispiece
"'Don't leave me'" 45
"'Why, Mr. Opp, I'm not old enough'" 129
"It was Mr. Opp saying his prayers" 197
"'Oh, my God, it has come'" 263
"'Can't nobody beat me making skirts'" 319
"I hope your passenger hasn't missed his train," observed the ferryman to Mr. Jimmy Fallows, who sat on the river bank with the painter of his rickety little naphtha launch held loosely in his hand.
"Mr. Opp?" said Jimmy. "I bet he did. If there is one person in the world that's got a talent for missing things, it's Mr. Opp. I never seen him that he hadn't just missed gettin' a thousand dollar job, or inventin' a patent, or bein' hurt when he had took out a accident policy. If he did ketch a train, like enough it was goin' the wrong way."
Jimmy had been waiting since nine in the morning, and it was now well past noon. He was a placid gentleman of curvilinear type, short of limb and large of girth. His trousers, of that morose hue termed by the country people "plum," reached to his armpits, and his hat, large and felt and weather-beaten, was only prevented from eclipsing his head by the stubborn resistance of two small, knob-like ears.
"Mr. Opp ain't been back to the Cove for a long while, has he?" asked the ferryman, whose intellectual life depended solely upon the crumbs of information scattered by chance passers-by.
"Goin' on two years," said Mr. Fallows. "Reckon he's been so busy formin' trusts and buyin' out railways and promotin' things generally that he ain't had any time to come back home. It's his step-pa's funeral that's bringin' him now. The only time city folks seem to want to see their kin folks in the country is when they are dead."
"Ain't that him a-comin' down the bank?" asked the ferryman, shading his eyes with his hands.
Mr. Fallows, with some difficulty, got to his feet.
"Yes, that's him all right. Hustlin' to beat the band. Wonder if he takes me for a street car."
Coming with important stride down the wharf, and whistling as he came, was a small man of about thirty-five. In one hand he carried a large suit-case, and in the other a new and shining grip. On both were painted, in letters designed to be seen, "D. Webster Opp, Kentucky."
In fact, everything about him was evidently designed to be seen. His new suit of insistent plaid, his magnificent tie sagging with the weight of a colossal scarf-pin, his brown hat, his new tan shoes, all demanded individual and instant attention.
The only insignificant thing about Mr. Opp was himself. His slight, undeveloped body seemed to be in a chronic state of apology for failing properly to set off the glorious raiment wherewith it was clothed. His pock-marked face, wide at the temples, sloped to a small, pointed chin, which, in turn, sloped precipitously into a long, thin neck. It was Mr. Opp's eyes, however, that one saw first, for they were singularly vivid, with an expression that made strangers sometimes pause in the street to ask him if he had spoken to them. Small, pale, and red of rim, they nevertheless held the look of intense hunger—hunger for the hope or the happiness of the passing moment.
As he came bustling down to the water's-edge he held out a friendly hand to Jimmy Fallows.
"How are you, Jimmy?" he said in a voice freighted with importance. "Hope I haven't kept you waiting long. Several matters of business come up at the last and final moment, and I missed the morning train."
Jimmy, who was pouring gasolene into a tank in the launch, treated the ferryman to a prodigious wink.
"Oh, not more'n four or five hour," he said, casting side glances of mingled scorn and admiration at Mr. Opp's attire. "It is a good thing it was the funeral you was tryin' to get to instid of the death-bed."
"Oh, that reminds me," said Mr. Opp, suddenly exchanging his air of cheerfulness for one of becoming gravity—"what time is the funeral obsequies going to take place?"
"Whenever we git there," said Jimmy, pushing off the launch and waving his hand to the ferryman. "You're one of the chief mourners, and I'm the undertaker; there ain't much danger in us gettin' left."
Mr. Opp deposited his baggage carefully on the seat, and spread his coat across the new grip to keep it from getting splashed.
"How long was Mr. Moore sick?" he asked, fanning himself with his hat.
"Well," said Jimmy, "he was in a dangerous and critical condition for about twenty-one years, accordin' to his own account. I been seein' him durin' that time on a average of four times a day, and last night when I seen him in his coffin it was the first time the old gentleman failed to ask me to give him a drink on account of his poor health."
"Is Ben there?" asked Mr. Opp, studying a time-table, and making a note in his memorandum-book.
"Your brother Ben? Yes; he come this mornin' just before I left. He was cussin' considerable because you wasn't there, so's they could go on and git through. He wants to start back to Missouri to-night."
"Is he out at the house?"
"No; he's at Your Hotel."
Mr. Opp looked up in surprise, and Jimmy chuckled.
"That there's the name of my new hotel. Started up sence you went away. Me and old man Tucker been running boardin'-houses side by side all these years. What did he do last summer but go out and git him a sign as big as the side of the house, and git Nick Fenny to paint 'Our Hotel' on it; then he put it up right across the sidewalk, from the gate clean out to the road. I didn't say nothin', but let the boys keep on a-kiddin' me till the next day; then I got me a sign jus' like his, with 'Your Hotel' on it, and put it up crost my sidewalk. He'd give a pretty if they was both down now; but he won't take his down while mine is up, and I ain't got no notion of taking it down."
"Yes," said Mr. Opp, absently, for his mind was still on the time-table; "I see that there's an accommodation that departs out of Coreyville in the neighborhood of noon to-morrow. It's a little unconvenient, I'm afraid, but do you think you could get me back in time to take it?"
"Why, what's yer hurry?" asked Jimmy, steering for mid-stream. "I thought you'd come to visit a spell, with all them bags and things."
Mr. Opp carelessly tossed back the sleeve of the coat, to display more fully the name on the suit-case. "Them's drummers' samples," he said almost reverently—"the finest line of shoes that have ever been put out by any house in the United States, bar none."
"Why, I thought you was in the insurance business," said Jimmy.
"Oh, no; that was last year, just previous to my reporting on a newspaper. This"—and Mr. Opp tried to spread out his hands, but was slightly deterred by the size of his cuffs—"this is the chance I been looking for all my life. It takes brains and a' educated nerve, and a knowledge of the world. I ought to create considerable capital in the next few years. And just as soon as I do"—and Mr. Opp leaned earnestly toward Jimmy, and tapped one finger upon the palm of his other hand—"just as soon as I do, I intend to buy up all the land lying between Turtle Creek and the river. There's enough oil under that there ground to ca'm the troubled waters of the Pacific Ocean. You remember old Mr. Beeker? Well, he told me, ten years ago, that he bored a well for brine over there, and it got so full of black petroleum he had to abandon it. Now, I'm calculating on forming a stock company,—you and Mr. Tucker, I and old man Hager, and one or two others,—and buying up that ground. Then we'll sink a test well, get up a derrick and a' engine, and have the thing running in no time. The main thing is a competent manager. You know I'm thinking seriously of taking it myself? It's too big a proposition to run any risks with."
"Here, say, wait a minute; how long have you had this here shoe job?" Jimmy caught madly at the first fact in sight to keep him from being swept away by the flood of Mr. Opp's oily possibilities.
"I taken it last week," said Mr. Opp; "had to go all the way to Chicago to get my instructions, and to get fitted out. My territory is a specially important one; four counties, all round Chicago."
"I was in Chicago oncet," said Jimmy, his eyes brightening at the memory. "By golly! if the world is as big in every direction as it is in that, she's a whopper!"
The wind, freshening as they got under way, loosened the canvas overhead, and Mr. Opp rose to buckle it into place. As he half knelt in the bow of the boat, he lifted his face to the cool breeze, and took a deep breath of satisfaction. The prosaic river from Coreyville to the Cove was the highway he knew best in the world. Under the summer sunshine the yellow waters lost their sullen hue, and reflected patches of vivid red and white from the cottages and barns that dotted the distant shore.
"I don't consider there's any sceneries in the country that'll even begin to compare with these here," Mr. Opp announced, out of the depths of his wide experience. "Just look at the sunshine pouring forth around the point of the island. It spills through the trees and leaks out over the water just like quicksilver. Now, that's a good thought! It's perfectly astounding, you might say surprising, how easy thoughts come to me. I ought to been a writer; lots of folks have said so. Why, there ain't a day of my life that I don't get a poem in my head."
"Shucks!" observed Jimmy Fallows. "I'd as lief read figgers on a tow-boat as to read poetry. Old man Gusty used to write poetry, but he couldn't get nobody to print it, so he decided to start a newspaper at the Cove and chuck it full of his own poems. He bought a whole printin' outfit, and set it up in Pete Aker's old carpenter shop out there at the edge of town, opposite his home. But 'fore he got his paper started he up and died. Yes, sir; and the only one of his poems that he ever did git in print was the one his wife had cut on his tombstone."
Mr. Opp was not listening. With his head bared and his lips parted he was indulging in his principal weakness. For Mr. Opp, it must be confessed, was given to violent intoxication, not from an extraneous source, but from too liberal draughts of his own imagination. In extenuation, the claims of genius might be urged, for a genius he unquestionably was in that he created something out of nothing. Out of an abnormal childhood, a lonely boyhood, and a failure-haunted manhood, he had managed to achieve an absorbing career. Each successive enterprise had loomed upon his horizon big with possibilities, and before it sank to oblivion, another scheme, portentous, significant, had filled its place. Life was a succession of crises, and through them he saw himself moving, now a shrewd merchant, now a professional man, again an author of note, but oftenest of all a promoter of great enterprises, a financier, and man of affairs.
While he was thus mentally engaged in drilling oil-wells, composing poetry, and selling shoes, Jimmy Fallows was contemplating with fascinated wonder an object that floated from his coat pocket. From a brown-paper parcel, imperfectly wrapped, depended a curl of golden hair, and it bobbed about in the breeze in a manner that reduced Mr. Fallows to a state of abject curiosity.
So intent was Jimmy upon his investigation that he failed to hold his course, and the launch swung around the end of the island with such a sudden jerk that Mr. Opp took an unexpected seat.
As he did so, his hand touched the paper parcel in his pocket, and realizing that it was untied, he hastily endeavored, by a series of surreptitious manoeuvers, to conceal what it contained. Feeling the quizzical eye of his shipmate full upon him, he assumed an air of studied indifference, and stoically ignored the subterranean chuckles and knowing winks in which Mr. Fallows indulged.
Presently, when the situation had become poignant, Mr. Opp observed that he supposed the funeral would take place from the church.
"I reckon so," said Jimmy, reluctantly answering to the call of the conversational rudder. "I told the boys to have a hack there for you and Mr. Ben and Miss Kippy."
"I don't think my sister will be there," said Mr. Opp, with dignity; "she seldom or never leaves the house."
"Reckon Mr. Ben will have to take keer of her now," said Jimmy; "she surely will miss her pa. He never done a lick of work since I knowed him, but he was a nice, quiet old fellow, and he certainly was good to pore Miss Kippy."
"Mr. Moore was a gentleman," said Mr. Opp, and he sighed.
"Ain't she got any kin on his side? No folks except you two half-brothers?"
"That's all," said Mr. Opp; "just I and Ben."
"Gee! that's kind of tough on you all, ain't it?"
But the sympathy was untimely, for Mr. Opp's dignity had been touched in a sensitive place.
"Our sister will be well provided for," he said, and the conversation suffered a relapse.
Mr. Opp went back to his time-tables and his new note-book, and for the rest of the trip Jimmy devoted himself to his wheel, with occasional ocular excursions in the direction of Mr. Opp's coat pocket.
Lying in the crook of the river's elbow, with the nearest railroad eighteen miles away, Cove City, familiarly known as the Cove, rested serenely undisturbed by the progress of the world. Once a day, at any time between sundown and midnight, it was roused from its drowsiness by the arrival of the mail-boat, and, shaking itself into temporary wakefulness, sat up and rubbed its eyes. This animation was, however, of short duration, for before the packet had whistled for the next landing, the Cove had once more settled back into slumber.
Main Street began with a shabby, unpainted school-house, and following dramatic sequence, ended abruptly in the graveyard. Two cross-streets, which had started out with laudable ideas of independence, lost courage at Main Street and sought strength in union; but the experiment was not successful, and a cow-path was the result. The only semblance of frivolity about the town was a few straggling cottages on stilts of varying height as they approached the river; for they seemed ever in the act of holding up their skirts preparatory to wading forth into the water.
On this particular summer afternoon Cove City was less out of crimp than usual. The gathering of loafers that generally decorated the empty boxes piled along the sidewalk was missing. The old vehicles and weary-looking mules which ordinarily formed an irregular fringe along the hitching rail were conspicuously absent. A subdued excitement was in the air, and at the slightest noise feminine heads appeared at windows, and masculine figures appeared in doorways, and comments were exchanged in low tones from one side of the street to the other. For the loss of a citizen, even a poor one, disturbs the surface of affairs, and when the event brings two relatives from a distance, the ripples of excitement increase perceptibly.
Mr. Moore had been a citizen-in-law, as it were, and had never been considered in any other light than poor Mrs. Opp's widower. Mrs. Opp's poor widower might have been a truer way of stating it, but even a town has its parental weaknesses.
For two generations the Opp family had been a source of mystery and romance to the Cove. It stood apart, like the house that held it, poor and shabby, but bearing a baffling atmosphere of gentility, of superiority, and of reserve.
Old women recalled strange tales of the time when Mrs. Opp had come to the Cove as a bride, and how she refused to meet any of the townspeople, and lived alone in the old house on the river-bank, watching from hour to hour for the wild young husband who clerked on one of the river steamers. They told how she grew thin and white with waiting, and how, when her two boys were small, she made them stand beside her for hours at a time, watching the river and listening for the whistle of his boat. Then the story went that the gay young husband stopped coming altogether, and still she watched and waited, never allowing the boys out of her sight, refusing to send them to school, or to let them play with other children. By and by word was brought that her husband had been killed in a quarrel over cards, and little Mrs. Opp, having nothing now to watch for and to wait for, suddenly became strangely changed.
Old Aunt Tish, the negro servant, was the only person who ever crossed the threshold, and she told of a strange life that went on behind the closely curtained windows, where the sunlight was never allowed to enter, and lamps burned all day long.
"Yas, 'm," she used to say in answer to curious questionings; "hit's jes like play-actin' all de time. The Missis dress herself up, an' 'tend like she's a queen or a duke or somethin', an' dat little D. he jes acts out all dem fool things she tells him to, an' he ain't never bein' hisself at all, but jes somebody big and mighty and grand-like."
When the boys were half-grown, a stranger appeared in the Cove, a dapper little man of about fifty in a shabby frock-coat and a shabbier high hat, kind of face and gentle of voice, but with the dignity of conscious superiority. The day of his arrival he called upon Mrs. Opp; the second day he took a preacher with him and married her. Whatever old romance had led to this climax could only be dimly guessed at by the curious townspeople.
For two years Mr. Moore fought for the mind of his old sweetheart as he had long ago fought for her heart. He opened the house to the sunshine, and coaxed the little lady back into the world she had forgotten. The boys were sent to school, the old games and fancies were forbidden. Gradually the color returned to her cheeks, and the light to her eyes.
Then little Kippy was born, and happiness such as seldom comes to one who has tasted the dregs of life came to the frail little woman in the big four-poster bed. For ten days she held the baby fingers to her heart, and watched the little blossom of a maid unfold.
But one black night, when the rain beat against the panes, and the moan of the river sounded in her ears, she suddenly sat up in bed: she had heard the whistle of his boat! Full of dumb terror she crept to the window, and with her face pressed against the glass she waited and watched. The present was swallowed up in the past. She was once more alone, unloved, afraid. Stealthily snatching a cloak, she crept down into the garden, feeling her way through the sodden grass, and the jimpson weed which the rain had beaten down.
And ever since, when children pass the house on their way to school, they peep through the broken fence rails, and point out to one another, in awed tones, the tree under which Miss Kippy's mother killed herself. Then they look half-fearfully at the windows in the hope of catching a glimpse of Miss Kippy herself.
For Kippy had had a long illness in her thirteenth year which left her with the face and mind of a little child, and kindly, shabby Mr. Moore, having made the supreme effort of his life, from this time on ceased to struggle against the weakness that for half a lifetime had beset him, and sought oblivion in innocuous but perpetual libations. The one duty which he recognized was the care of his invalid daughter.
As soon as they were old enough, the boys launched their small craft and set forth to seek their fortunes. Ben, with no cargo on board but his own desires, went west and found a snug and comfortable harbor, while D. Webster, the hope of his mother and the pride of the town, was at thirty-five still putting out to sea, with all sail set, only to find himself again and again aground on the sandbars of the old familiar Cove.
Jimmy Fallows, being the boastful possessor of the fleetest horse in town, was the first to return from the funeral. Extricating himself with some difficulty from the narrow-seated buggy, he held out his hand to Mrs. Fallows. But that imposing lady, evidently offended with her jovial lord, refused his proffered aid, and clambered out over the wheel on the other side.
Mrs. Fallows, whose architectural effects were strictly perpendicular, cast a perpetual shadow of disapproval over the life partner whom it had pleased Providence to bestow upon her. Jimmy was a born satirist; he knew things are not what they seem, and he wickedly rejoiced thereat. To his literal, pious-minded wife he at times seemed the incarnation of wickedness.
Sweeping with dignity beneath the arching sign of Your Hotel, she took her seat upon the porch, and, disposing her sable robes about her, folded her mitted hands, and waited to see the people return from the funeral.
Jimmy, with the uncertain expression of one who is ready to apologize, but cannot remember the offense, hovered about uneasily, casting tempting bits of conversational bait into the silence, but failing to attract so much as a nibble of attention.
"Miss Jemima Fenny was over to the funeral from Birdtown. Miss Jim is one of 'em, ain't she?"
There was no response.
"Had her brother Nick with her. He's just gettin' over typhoid fever; looks about the size and color of a slate pencil. I bet, in spite of Miss Jim's fine clothes, they ain't had a square meal for a month. That's because she kept him at school so long when he orter been at work. He did git a job in a newspaper office over at Coreyville not long 'fore he was took sick. They tell me he's as slick as a onion about newspaper work."
Continued silence; but Jimmy boldly cast another fly:
"Last funeral we had was Mrs. Tucker's, wasn't it? Old man Tucker was there to-day. Crape band on his hat is climbin' up; it'll be at high mast ag'in soon."
Dense, nerve-racking silence; but Jimmy made one more effort:
"The Opps are coming back here to-night to talk things over before Ben goes on to Missouri. He counts on ketchin' the night boat. It won't give him much time, will it?"
But Mrs. Fallows, unrelaxed, stared fixedly before her; she had taken refuge in that most trying of all rejoinders, silence, and the fallible Jimmy, who waxed strong and prospered upon abuse, drooped and languished under this new and cruel form of punishment.
It was not until a buggy stopped at the door, and the Opp brothers descended, that the tension was in any way relieved.
Jimmy greeted them with the joy of an Arctic explorer welcoming a relief party.
"Come right on in here, in the office," he cried hospitably; "your talkin' won't bother me a speck."
But Ben abruptly expressed his desire for more private quarters, and led the way up-stairs.
The low-ceiled room into which he ushered D. Webster was of such a depressing drab that even the green and red bed-quilt failed to disperse the gloom. The sole decoration, classic in its severity, was a large advertisement for a business college, whereon an elk's head grew out of a bow of ribbon, the horns branching and rebranching into a forest of curves and flourishes.
The elder Opp took his seat by the window, and drummed with impatient fingers on the sill. He was small, like his brother, but of a compact, sturdy build. His chin, instead of dwindling to a point, was square and stubborn, and his eyes looked straight ahead at the thing he wanted, and neither saw nor cared for what lay outside. He had been trying ever since leaving the cemetery to bring the conversation down to practical matters, but D. Webster, seizing the first opportunity of impressing himself upon his next of kin, had persisted in indulging in airy and time-destroying flights of fancy.
The truth is that our Mr. Opp was not happy. In his secret heart he felt a bit apologetic before the material success of his elder brother. Hence it was necessary to talk a great deal and to set forth in detail the very important business enterprises upon which he was about to embark.
Presently Ben Opp looked at his watch.
"See here," he interrupted, "that boat may be along at any time. We'd better come to some decision about the estate."
D. Webster ran his fingers through his hair, which stood in valiant defense of the small bald spot behind it.
"Yes, yes," he said; "business is business. I'll have to be off myself the very first thing in the morning. This funeral couldn't have come at a more unfortunate time for me. You see, my special territory—"
But Ben saw the danger of another bolt, and checked him:
"How much do you think the old house is worth?"
D. Webster drew forth his shiny note-book and pencil and made elaborate calculations.
"I should say," he said, as one financier to another, "that including of the house and land and contents of same, it would amount to the whole sum total of about two thousand dollars."
"That is about what I figured," said Ben; "now, how much money is in the bank?"
D. Webster produced a formidable packet of letters and papers from his inside pocket and, after some searching, succeeded in finding a statement, which set forth the fact that the Ripper County Bank held in trust one thousand dollars, to be divided between the children of Mary Opp Moore at the death of her husband, Curtis V. Moore.
"One thousand dollars!" said Ben, looking blankly at his brother, "Why, for heaven's sake, what have Mr. Moore and Kippy been living on all these years?"
D. Webster moved uneasily in his chair. "Oh, they've managed to get along first rate," he said evasively.
His brother looked at him narrowly. "On the interest of a thousand dollars?" He leaned forward, and his face hardened: "See here, have you been putting up cash all this time for that old codger to loaf on? Is that why you have never gotten ahead?"
D. Webster, with hands in his pockets and his feet stretched in front of him, was blinking in furious embarrassment at the large-eyed elk overhead.
"To think," went on Ben, his slow wrath rising, "of your staying here in Kentucky all these years and handing out what you made to that old sponger. I cut loose and made a neat little sum, married, and settled down. And what have you done? Where have you gotten? Anybody that would let himself be imposed upon like that deserves to fail. Now what do you propose to do about this money?"
Mr. Opp did not propose to do anything. The affront offered his business sagacity was of such a nature that it demanded all his attention. He composed various denunciatory answers with which to annihilate his brother. He hesitated between two courses, whether he should hurl himself upon him in righteous indignation and demand physical satisfaction, or whether he should rise in a calm and manly attitude and wither him with blighting sarcasm. And while the decision was pending, he still sat with his hands in his pockets, and his feet stretched forth, and blinked indignantly at the ornate elk.
"The estate," continued Ben, contempt still in his face, "amounts at most to three thousand dollars, after the house is sold. Part of this, of course, will go to the maintenance of Kippy."
At mention of her name, Mr. Opp's gaze dropped abruptly to his brother's face.
"What about Kippy? She's going to live with you, ain't she?" he asked anxiously.
Ben Opp shook his head emphatically. "She certainly is not. I haven't the slightest idea of burdening myself and family with that feeble-minded girl."
"But see here," said Mr. Opp, his anger vanishing in the face of this new complication, "you don't know Kippy; she's just similar to a little child, quiet and gentle-like. Never give anybody any trouble in her life. Just plays with her dolls and sings to herself all day."
"Exactly," said Ben; "twenty-five years old and still playing with dolls. I saw her yesterday, dressed up in all sorts of foolish toggery, talking to her hands, and laughing. Aunt Tish humors her, and her father humored her, but I'm not going to. I feel sorry for her all right, but I am not going to take her home with me."
D. Webster nervously twisted the large seal ring which he wore on his forefinger. "Then what do you mean," he said hesitatingly—"what do you want to do about it?"
"Why, send her to an asylum, of course. That's where she ought to have been all these years."
Mr. Opp, sitting upon the small of his back, with one leg wrapped casually about the leg of the chair, stared at him for a moment in consternation, then, gathering himself together, rose and for the first time since we have met him seemed completely to fill his checked ready-made suit.
"Send Kippy to a lunatic asylum!" he said in tones so indignant that they made his chin tremble. "You will do nothing whatever of the kind! Why, all she's ever had in the world was her pa and Aunt Tish and her home; now he's gone, you ain't wanting to take the others away from her too, are you?"
"Well, who is going to take care of her?" demanded Ben angrily.
"I am," announced D. Webster, striking as fine an attitude as ever his illustrious predecessor struck; "you take the money that's in the bank, and leave me the house and Kippy. That'll be her share and mine. I can take care of her; I don't ask favors of nobody. Suppose I do lose my job; I'll get me another. There's a dozen ways I can make a living. There ain't a man in the State that's got more resources than me. I got plans laid now that'll revolutionize—"
"Yes," said Ben, quietly, "you always could do great things."
D. Webster's egotism, inflated to the utmost, burst at this prick, and he suddenly collapsed. Dropping limply into the chair by the table, he held his hand over his mouth to hide his agitation.
"There's—there's one thing," he began, swallowing violently, and winking after each word, "that I—I can't do—and that's to leave a—sister—to die—among strangers."
And then, to his mortification, his head went unexpectedly down upon his arms, and a flood of tears bedimmed the radiance of his twenty-five-cent four-in-hand.
From far down the river came the whistle of the boat, and, in the room below, Jimmy Fallows removed a reluctant ear from the stove-pipe hole.
"Melindy," he said confidentially, entirely forgetting the late frost, "I never see anybody in the world that stood as good a show of gittin' the fool prize as that there D. Opp."
The old Opp House stood high on the river-bank and gazed lonesomely out into the summer night. It was a shabby, down-at-heel, dejected-looking place, with one side showing faint lights, above and below, but the other side so nailed up and empty and useless that it gave the place the appearance of being paralyzed down one side and of having scarcely enough vitality left to sustain life in the other.
To make matters worse, an old hound howled dismally on the door-step, only stopping occasionally to paw at the iron latch and to whimper for the master whose unsteady footsteps he had followed for thirteen years.
In the front room a shaded lamp, turned low, threw a circle of light on the table and floor, leaving the corners full of vague, uncertain shadows. From the wide, black fireplace a pair of rusty and battered andirons held out empty arms, and on the high stone shelf above the opening, flanked on each side by a stuffed owl, was a tall, square-faced clock, with the hour-hand missing. The minute-hand still went on its useless round, and behind it, on the face of the clock, a tiny schooner with all sail set rocked with the swinging of the pendulum.
The loud ticking of the clock, and the lamentations of the hound without, were not the only sounds that disturbed the night. Before the empty fireplace, in a high-backed, cane-bottomed chair, slept an old negress, with head bowed, moaning and muttering as she slept. She was bent and ashen with age, and her brown skin sagged in long wrinkles from her face and hands. On her forehead, reaching from brow to faded turban, was a hideous testimony to some ancient conflict. A large, irregular hole, over which the flesh had grown, pulsed as sentiently and imperatively as a naked, living heart.
A shutter slammed sharply somewhere in the house above, and something stirred fearfully in the shadow of the room. It was a small figure that crouched against the wall, listening and watching with the furtive terror of a newly captured coyote—the slight figure of a woman dressed as a child, with short gingham dress, and heelless slippers, and a bright ribbon holding back the limp, flaxen hair from her strange, pinched face.
Again and again her wide, frightened eyes sought the steps leading to the room above, and sometimes she would lean forward and whisper in agonized expectancy, "Daddy?" Then when no answer came, she would shudder back against the wall, cold and shaking and full of dumb terrors.
Suddenly the hound's howling changed to a sharp bark, and the old negress stirred and stretched herself.
"What ails dat air dog?" she mumbled, going to the window, and shading her eyes with her hand. "You'd 'low to hear him tell it he done heared old master coming up de road."
That somebody was coming was evident from the continued excitement of the hound, and when the gate slammed and a man's voice sounded in the darkness, Aunt Tish opened the door, throwing a long, dim patch of light out across the narrow porch and over the big, round stepping-stones beyond.
Into the light came Mr. Opp, staggering under the load of his baggage, his coat over his arm, his collar off, thoroughly spent with the events of the day.
"Lord 'a' mercy!" said Aunt Tish, "if hit ain't Mr. D.! I done give you up long ago. I certainly is glad you come. Miss Kippy's jes carrying on like ever'thing. She ain't been to baid for two nights, an' I can't do nothin' 't all wif her."
Mr. Opp deposited his things in a corner, and, tired as he was, assumed an air of authority. It was evident that a man was needed, a person of firmness, of decision.
"I'll see that she goes to bed at once," he said resolutely. "Where is she at?"
"She's behind de door," said Aunt Tish; "she's be'n so skeered ever sence her paw died I can't do nothin' wif her."
"Kippy," said Mr. Opp, sternly, "come out here this minute."
But there was no response. Going to the corner where his coat lay, he took from the pocket a brown-paper parcel.
"Say, Kippy," he said in a greatly mollified tone, "I wish you would come on out here and see me. You remember brother D., don't you? You ought to see what I brought you all the way from the city. It's got blue eyes."
At this the small, grotesque figure, distrustful, suspicious, ready to take flight at a word, ventured slowly forth. So slight she was, and so frail, and so softly she moved, it was almost as if the wind blew her toward him. Every thought that came into her brain was instantly reflected in her hypersensitive face, and as she stood before him nervously plucking her fingers, fear and joy struggled for supremacy. Suddenly with a low cry she snatched the doll from him and clasped it to her heart.
Meanwhile Aunt Tish had spread a cloth on the table and set forth some cold corn dodger, a pitcher of foaming butter-milk, and a plate of cold corned beef. The milk was in a battered pewter pitcher, but the dish that held the corn bread was of heavy silver, with intricate chasings about the rim.
Mr. Opp, with his head propped on his hand, ate wearily. He had been up since four o'clock that morning, and to-morrow he must be up at daybreak if he was to keep his engagements to supply the dealers with the greatest line of shoes ever put upon the market. Between now and then he must decide many things: Kippy must be planned for, the house gone over, and arrangements made for the future. Being behind the scenes, as it were, and having no spectator to impress, he allowed himself to sink into an attitude of extreme dejection. And Mr. Opp, shorn of the dignity of his heavily padded coat, and his imposing collar and tie, and with even his pompadour limp upon his forehead, failed entirely to give a good imitation of himself.
As he sat thus, with one hand hanging limply over the back of the chair, he felt something touch it softly, dumbly, as a dog might. Looking down, he discovered Miss Kippy sitting on the floor, close behind him, watching him with furtive eyes. In one arm she cradled the new doll, and in the other she held his coat.
Mr. Opp patted her cheek: "Whatever are you doing with my coat?" he asked.
Miss Kippy held it behind her, and nodded her head wisely: "Keeping it so you can't go away," she whispered. "I'll hold it tight all night. To-morrow I'll hide it."
"But I'm a business man," said Mr. Opp, unconsciously straightening his shoulders. "A great deal of responsibility depends on me. I've got to be off early in the morning; but I'm coming back to see you real often—every now and then."
Miss Kippy's whole attitude changed. She caught his hand and clung to it, and the terror came back to her eyes.
"You mustn't go," she whispered, her body quivering with excitement. "It'll get me if you do. Daddy kept It away, and you can keep It away; but Aunt Tish can't: she's afraid of It, too! She goes to sleep, and then It reaches at me through the window. It comes down the chimney, there—where you see the brick's loose. Don't leave me, D. Hush, don't you hear It?"
Her voice had risen to hysteria, and she clung to him, cold and shaken by the fear that possessed her.
Mr. Opp put a quieting arm about her. "Why, see here, Kippy," he said, "didn't you know It was afraid of me? Look how strong I am! I could kill It with my little finger."
"Could you?" asked Miss Kippy, fearfully.
"Yes, indeed," said Mr. Opp. "Don't you ever be scared of anything whatsoever when Brother D.'s round. I'm going to take care of you from now on."
"This me is bad," announced Miss Kippy; "the other me is good. Her name is Oxety; she has one blue eye and one brown."
"Well, Oxety must go to bed now," said Mr. Opp; "it must be getting awful late."
But Miss Kippy shook her head. "You might go 'way," she said.
Finding that he could not persuade her, Mr. Opp resorted to strategy: "I'll tell you what let's me and you do. Let's put your slippers on your hands."
This proposition met with instant approval. It appealed to Miss Kippy as a brilliant suggestion. She assisted in unbuttoning the single straps and watched with glee as they were fastened about her wrists.
"Now," said Mr. Opp, with assumed enthusiasm, "we'll make the slippers walk you up-stairs, and after Aunt Tish undresses you, they shall walk you to bed. Won't that be fun?"
Miss Kippy's fancy was so tickled by this suggestion that she put it into practice at once, and went gaily forth up the steps on all fours. At the turn she stopped, and looked at him wistfully:
"You'll come up before I go to sleep?" she begged; "Daddy did."
Half an hour later Aunt Tish came down the narrow stairway: "She done gone to baid now, laughin' an' happy ag'in," she said; "she never did have dem spells when her paw was round, an' sometimes dat chile jes as clear in her mind as you an' me is."
"What is it she's afraid of?" asked Mr. Opp.
Aunt Tish leaned toward him across the table, and the light of the lamp fell full upon her black, bead-like eyes, and her sunken jaws, and on the great palpitating scar.
"De ghosties," she whispered; "dey been worriting dat chile ever' chance dey git. I hear 'em! Dey wait till I take a nap of sleep, den dey comes sneakin' in to pester her. She says dey ain't but one, but I hears heaps ob 'em, some ob 'em so little dey kin climb onder de crack in de door."
"Look a-here, Aunt Tish," said Mr. Opp, sternly, "don't you ever talk a word of this foolishness to her again. Not one word, do you hear?"
"Yas, sir; dat's what Mr. Moore allays said, an' I don't talk to her 'bout hit, I don't haf to. She done knows I know. I been livin' heah goin' on forty years, sence 'fore you was borned, an' you can't fool me, chile; no, sir, dat you can't."
"Well, you must go to bed now," said Mr. Opp, looking up at the clock and seeing that it was half-past something though he did not know what.
"I never goes to baid when I stays here," announced Aunt Tish; "I sets up in de kitchen an' sleeps. I's skeered dat chile run away; she 'low she gwine to some day. Her paw ketched her oncet gittin' in a boat down on de river-bank. She ain't gwine, while I's here, no sir-ee! I never leaves her in de daytime an' her paw never leaves her at night, dat is, when he's livin'."
After she had gone, Mr. Opp ascended the stairway, and entered the room above. A candle sputtered on the table, and in its light he saw the wide, four-poster bed that had been his mother's, and in it the frail figure of little Miss Kippy. Her hair lay loose upon the pillow, and on her sleeping face, appealing in its helplessness, was a smile of perfect peace. The new doll lay on the table beside the candle, but clasped tightly in her arms was the coat of many checks.
For a moment Mr. Opp stood watching her, then he drew his shirt-sleeve quickly across his eyes. As he turned to descend, his new shoes creaked painfully and, after he had carefully removed them, he tiptoed down, passed through the sitting-room and out upon the porch, where he sank down on the step and dropped his head on his arms.
The night was very still, save for the croaking of a bullfrog, and the incessant scraping of a cedar-tree against the corner of the roof. From across the river, faint sparks of light shone out from cabin windows, and, below, a moving light now and then told of a passing scow. Once a steamboat slipped weirdly out of the darkness, sparkling with lights, and sending up faint sounds of music; but before the waves from the wheel had ceased to splash on the bank below, she was swallowed up in the darkness, leaving lonesomeness again.
Mr. Opp sat staring out into the night, outwardly calm, but inwardly engaged in a mortal duel. The aggressive Mr. Opp of the gorgeous raiment and the seal ring, the important man of business, the ambitious financier, was in deadly combat with the insignificant Mr. Opp, he of the shirt-sleeves and the wilted pompadour, the delicate, sensitive, futile Mr. Opp who was incapable of everything but the laying down of his life for the sake of another.
A dull line of light hovered on the horizon, and gradually the woods on the opposite shore took shape, then the big river itself, gray and shimmering, with streaks on the water where a snag broke the swift current.
"Mr. D.," he heard Aunt Tish calling up the back stairs, "you better git out of baid; hit's sun-up."
He rose stiffly and started back to the kitchen. As he passed through the front room, his eyes fell upon his new suit-case full of the treasured drummers' samples. Stooping down, he traced the large black letters with his finger and sighed deeply.
Then he got up resolutely and marched to the kitchen door.
"Aunt Tish," he said with authority, "you needn't mind about hurrying breakfast. I find there's very important business will keep me here in the Cove for the present."
There were two methods of communication in Cove City, both of which were equally effective. One was the telephone, which from a single, isolated case had developed into an epidemic, and the other, which enjoyed the dignity of precedence and established custom, was to tell Jimmy Fallows.
Both of these currents of information soon overflowed with the news that Mr. D. Webster Opp had given up a good position in the city, and expected to establish himself in business in his native town. The nature of this business was agitating the community at large in only a degree less than it was agitating Mr. Opp himself.
One afternoon Jimmy Fallows stood with his back to his front gate, suspended by his armpits from the pickets, and conducted business after his usual fashion. As a general retires to a hill-top to organize his forces and issue orders to his subordinates, so Jimmy hung upon his front fence and conducted the affairs of the town. He knew what time each farmer came in, where the "Helping Hands" were going to sew, where the doctor was, and where the services would be held next Sunday. He was coroner, wharf-master, undertaker, and notary, and the only thing in the heavens above or the earth below concerning which he did not attempt to give information was the arrival of the next steamboat.
As he stood whittling a stick and cheerfully humming a tune of other days, he descried a small, alert figure coming up the road. The pace was so much brisker than the ordinary slow gait of the Cove that he recognized the person at once as Mr. Opp. Whereupon he lifted his voice and hailed a boy who was just vanishing down the street in the opposite direction:
"Nick!" he called. "Aw, Nick Fenny! Tell Mat Lucas that Mr. Opp's uptown."
Connection being thus made at one end of the line, he turned to effect it at the other. "Howdy, Brother Opp. Kinder dusty on the river, ain't it?"
"Well, we are experiencing considerable of warm weather at this juncture," said Mr. Opp, affably.
"Mat Lucas has been hanging round here all day," said Jimmy. "He wants you to buy out a half-interest in his dry-goods store. What do you think about it?"
"Well," said Mr. Opp, thrusting his thumbs into the armholes of his waistcoat, "I am considering of a great variety of different things. I been in the dry-goods business twice, and I can't say but what it ain't a pretty business. Of course," he added with a twinge, "my specialty are shoes."
"Yes," said Jimmy; "but the folks here all gets their shoes at the drug store. Mr. Toddlinger's been carrying a line of shoes along with his pills and plasters ever sence he went into business."
Mr. Opp looked up at the large sign overhead. "If you and Mr. Tucker wasn't both in the hotel business, I might be thinking of considering that."
This proposition tickled Jimmy immensely. Chuckles of amusement agitated his rotund figure.
"Why don't you buy us both out?" he asked. "We could sell out for nothing and make money."
"Why, there's three boarders sitting over at Our Hotel now," said Mr. Opp, who rather fancied himself in the role of a genial host.
"Yes," said Jimmy. "Old man Tucker's had 'em hanging out on the line all morning. I don't guess they got strength enough to walk around much after the meals he give 'em."
"Of course," said Mr. Opp, wholly absorbed in his own affairs, "this is just temporarily for the time being, as it were. In a year or so, when my financial condition is sorter more established in a way, I intend to put through that oil-wells proposition. The fact that I am aiming at arriving to is what would you think the Cove was at present most in need of?"
"Elbow-grease," said Jimmy, promptly. "The only two things that we ain't got that a city has, is elbow-grease and a newspaper."
For a moment there was a silence, heavy with significance. Mr. Fallows's gaze penetrated the earth, while Mr. Opp's scanned the heavens; then they suddenly looked at each other, and the great idea was born.
An editor! Mr. Opp's whole being thrilled responsive to the call. The thought of dwelling above the sordid bartering of commercial life, of being in a position to exercise those mental powers with which he felt himself so generously endowed, almost swept him off his feet. He had been a reporter once; for two golden weeks he had handed in police-court reports that fairly scintillated with verbal gems plucked at random from the dictionary. But the city editor had indicated as kindly as possible that his services were no longer required, vaguely suggesting that it was necessary to reduce the force; and Mr. Opp had assured him that he understood perfectly, and that he was ready to return at any future time. That apprenticeship, brief though it was, served as a foundation upon which Mr. Opp erected a tower of dazzling possibilities.
"What's the matter with you takin' Mr. Gusty's old printin'-shop and startin' up business for yourself?" asked Jimmy.
"Do you reckon she'd sell it?" asked Mr. Opp, anxiously.
"Sell it?" said Jimmy. "Why, she's 'most ready to give it away to keep from having to pay Pete Aker's rent for the shop. Say—Mr. Gall—up," he called up the street to a man who was turning the corner, "is Mrs. Gusty at home?"
The man, thus accosted, turned and came toward them.
"Who is Mr. Gallop?" asked Mr. Opp.
"He's the new telephone girl," said Jimmy, with relish; "ain't been here but a month, and he's doing the largest and most profitable trade in tending to other folks's business you ever seen. Soft! Why, he must 'a' been raised on a pillow—He always puts me in mind of a highly educated pig: it sorter surprises and tickles you to see him walkin' round on his hind legs and talking like other people. Other day one of the boys, just to devil him, ast him to drive his team out home. I liked to 'a' died when I seen him tryin' to turn the corner, pullin' 'Gee' and hollerin' 'Haw' with every breath. Old mules got their legs in a hard knot trying to do both at once, and the boys says when Gallop got out in the country he felt so bad about it he got down and 'pologized to the mules. How 'bout that, Gallop—did you!" he concluded as the subject of the conversation arrived upon the scene.
The new-comer, a plump, fair young man, who held one hand clasped affectionately in the other, blushed indignantly, but said nothing.
"This here is Mr. Opp," went on Jimmy; "he wants to see Mrs. Gusty. Do you know whether he will ketch her at home or not?"
Mr. Gallop was by this time paying the tribute of many an admiring glance to every detail of Mr. Opp's costume, and Mr. Opp, realizing this, assumed an air of cosmopolitan nonchalance, and toyed indifferently with his large watch-fob.
When Mr. Gallop's admiration and attention had become focused upon Mr. Opp's ring, he suddenly turned on the faucet of his conversation, and allowed such a stream of general information to pour forth that Mr. Opp quite forgot to look imposing.
"Mrs. Gusty telephoned early this morning to Mrs. Dorsey that she would come over and help her make preserves. Mrs. Dorsey got a big load of peaches from her father across the river. He's been down with the asthma, and had to call up the doctor twice in the night. And the doctor couldn't get the right medicine in town, and had me call up the city. They are going to send it down on the Big Sandy, but she's stuck in the locks, and goodness knows when she'll get here. She's—"
"Excuse me," interrupted Mr. Opp, politely but firmly, "I've got to see Mrs. Gusty on very important business. Have you any idea whatsoever of when she will return back home?"
"Yes," said Mr. Gallop, eager to oblige. "She's about home by this time. Miss Lou Diker is making her a dress, and she telephoned she'd be by to try it on 'bout four o'clock. I'll go up there with you, if you want me to."
"Why don't you drive him!" suggested Jimmy. "You can borrow a pair of mules acrost the street."
"Mr. Opp," said Mr. Gallop, feelingly, as they walked up Main Street, "I wouldn't treat a' insect like he treats me."
"Oh, you mustn't mind Jimmy," said Mr. Opp, kindly; "he always sort of enjoys a little joke as he goes along. Why, I wouldn't be at all surprised if he even made a joke on me sometime. How long have you been in Cove City?"
"Just a month," said Mr. Gallop. "It must look awful little to you, after all the big cities you been used to."
Mr. Opp lengthened his stride. "Yes," he said largely; "quite small, quite little, in fact. No place for a business man; but for a professional man, a man that requires leisure to sort of cultivate his brain and that means to be a influence in the community, it's a good place, a remarkably good place."
A hint, however vague, dropped into the mind of Mr. Gallop, caused instant fermentation. From long experience he had become an adept at extracting information from all who crossed his path. A preliminary interest, a breath or two of flattery by way of anesthetic, and his victim's secret was out before he knew it.
"Reckon you are going up to talk insurance to Mrs. Gusty," he ventured tentatively.
"No; oh, no," said Mr. Opp. "I formerly was in the insurance business, some time back. Very little prospects in it for a man of my nature. I have to have a chance to sorter spread out, you know—to use my own particular ideas about working things out."
"What is your especial line?" asked Mr. Gallop, deferentially.
"Shoe—" Mr. Opp began involuntarily, then checked himself—"journalism," he said, and the word seemed for the moment completely to fill space.
At Mrs. Gusty's gate Mr. Gallop stopped.
"I guess I ought to go back now," he said regretfully; "the telephone and telegraph office is right there in my room, and I never leave them day or night except just this one hour in the afternoon. It's awful trying. The farmers begin calling each other up at three o'clock in the morning. Say, I wish you'd step in sometime. I'd just love to have you. But you are so busy and got so many friends, you won't have much time for me, I guess."
Mr. Opp thought otherwise. He said that no matter how pressed he was by various important duties, he was never too busy to see a friend. And he said it with the air of one who confers a favor, and Mr. Gallop received it as one who receives a favor, and they shook hands warmly and parted.
Mr. Opp, absorbed in the great scheme which was taking definite form in his mind, did not discover until he reached the steps that some one was lying in a hammock on the porch.
It was a dark-haired girl in a pink dress, with a pink bow in her hair and small bows on the toes of her high-heeled slippers—the very kind of person, in fact, that Mr. Opp was most desirous of avoiding.
Fortunately she was asleep, and Mr. Opp, after listening in vain at the door for sounds of Mrs. Gusty within, tiptoed cautiously to the other end of the porch and took his seat on a straight-backed settee.
Let it not for a moment be supposed that Mr. Opp was a stranger to the fascinations of femininity. He had been inoculated at a tender age, and it had taken so completely, so tragically, that he had crept back to life with one illusion sadly shattered, and the conviction firm within him that henceforth he was immune. His attitude toward the subject remained, however, interested, but cautious—such as a good little boy might entertain toward a loaded pistol.
As he sat very straight and very still on the green settee, he tried to compose his mind for the coming interview with Mrs. Gusty. Directly across the road was Aker's old carpenter-shop, a small, square, one-story edifice, shabby, and holding out scant promise of journalistic possibilities. Mr. Opp, however, seldom saw things as they were; he saw them as they were going to be. Before five minutes had elapsed he had the shop painted white, with trimmings of red, new panes in the windows, ground glass below and clear above, an imposing sign over the door, and the roadway blocked with eager subscribers. He would have to have an assistant, of course, some one to attend to the general details; but he would have charge of everything himself. He would edit a paper, comprehensive in its scope, and liberal in its views. Science, art, religion, society, and politics would all be duly chronicled. Politics! Why, his paper would be an organ—an organ of the Democratic Party!
At the thought of being an organ, Mr. Opp's bosom swelled with such pride that his settee creaked, and he glanced apprehensively toward the other end of the porch.
The young lady was still asleep, with her head resting on her bare arm, and one foot hanging limply below her ruffled petticoat.
Suddenly Mr. Opp leaned forward and viewed her slipper with interest. He had recognized the make! It was xxx-aa. He had carried a sample exactly like it, and had been wont to call enthusiastic attention to the curve of the instep and the set of the heel. He now realized that the effect depended entirely on the bow, and he seriously considered writing to the firm and suggesting the improvement.
In the midst of his reflections the young lady stirred and then sat up. Her hair was tumbled, and her eyes indicated that she had been indulging in recent tears. Resting her chin on her palms, she gazed gloomily down the road.
Mr. Opp, at the other end of the porch, also gazed gloomily down the road. The fact that he must make his presence known was annihilated by the yet more urgent fact that he could think of nothing to say. A bumblebee wheeled in narrowing circles above his head and finally lighted upon his coat-sleeve. But Mr. Opp remained immovable. He was searching his vocabulary for a word which would gently crack the silence without shattering it to bits.
The bumblebee saved the situation. Detecting some rare viand in a crack of the porch midway between the settee and the hammock, and evidently being a bibulous bee, it set up such a buzz of excitement that Mr. Opp looked at it, and the young lady looked at it, and their eyes met.
"Excuse me," said Mr. Opp, rather breathlessly; "you was asleep, and I come to see Mrs. Gusty, and—er—the fact is—I'm Mr. Opp."
At this announcement the young lady put her hand to her head, and by a dexterous movement rearranged the brown halo of her hair, and twisted the pink bow into its proper, aggressive position.
"Mother'll—be back soon,"—she spoke without embarrassment, yet with the hesitation of one who is not in the habit of speaking for herself,—"I—I—didn't know I was going to sleep."
"No," said Mr. Opp; then added politely, "neither did I." Silence again looming on the horizon, he plunged on: "I think I used to be in the habit of seeing you when you was—er—younger, didn't I?"
"Up at the store." She smiled faintly. "You bought me a bag of pop-corn once with a prize in it. It was a breastpin; I've got it yet."
Mr. Opp scowled slightly as he tried to extract an imaginary splinter from his thumb. "Do you—er—attend school?" he asked, taking refuge in a paternal attitude.
"I'm finished," she said listlessly. "I've been going to the Young Ladies' Seminary at Coreyville."
"Didn't you taken to it?" asked Mr. Opp, wishing fervently that Mrs. Gusty would return.
"Oh, yes," said his companion, earnestly. "I love it; I was a special. I took music and botany and painting. I was in four concerts last year and played in the double duets at the commencements." During the pause that followed, Mr. Opp considered various names for his newspaper. "Mother isn't going to let me go back," the soft, drawling voice continued; "she says when a girl is nineteen she ought to settle down. She wants me to get married."
Mr. Opp laid "The Cove Chronicle" and "The Weekly Bugle" aside for further consideration, and inquired politely if there was any special person whom Mrs. Gusty desired for a son-in-law.
"Oh, no," said the girl, indifferently; "she hasn't thought of anybody. But I don't want to get married—yet. I want to go back to the seminary and be a music teacher. I hate it here, every bit of it. It's so stupid—and lonesome, and—"
A break in her voice caused Mr. Opp to postpone a decision of the day on which his paper was to be published, and to give her his undivided attention. Distress, even in beauty, was not to be withstood, and the fact that she was unusually pretty had been annoying Mr. Opp ever since she had spoken to him. As she turned her head away and wiped her eyes, he rose impulsively and moved toward her:
"Say, look a-here now, you ain't crying, are you?" he asked.
She shook her head in indignant denial.
"Well—er—you don't seem exactly happy, as you might say," suggested Mr. Opp, boldly.
"I'm not," she confessed, biting her lip. "I oughtn't to talk to you about it, but there isn't anybody here that would understand. They think I'm stuck up when I talk about books and music and—and other kind of people. They just keep on doing the same stupid things till they get old and die. Only mother won't even let me do stupid things; she says I bother her when I try to help around the house."
"Can't you sew or make mottoes or something?" asked Mr. Opp, very vague as to feminine accomplishments.
"What's the use?" asked the girl. "Mother does everything for me. She always says she'd rather do it than teach me how."
"Don't you take to reading?" asked Mr. Opp.
"Oh, yes," she said; "I used to read all the time down at school; but there never is anything to read up here."
The editor-elect peopled the country with similar cases, and he immediately saw himself as a public benefactor supplying starved subscribers with a bountiful repast of weekly news.
"Won't you sit down?" asked the girl, interrupting his reflections. "I don't know what can be keeping mother."
Mr. Opp looked about for a chair, but there was none. Then he glanced at his companion, and saw that she was holding aside her pink skirt and evidently offering him a seat beside her in the hammock. He advanced a step, retreated, then weakly capitulated. Sitting very rigid, nursing his hat on his knees, and inserting his forefinger between his neck and his collar as if to breathe better, he remarked that it was getting warmer all the time.
"This isn't anything to what it will be later," said the girl; "it keeps on getting hotter and dustier all the time. I don't believe there's such a stupid, poky, little old place anywhere else in the world. You ought to be mighty glad you don't live here."
Mr. Opp cleared his throat with some dignity. "I expect to remain here permanent now. I—well—the truth is, I have decided to operate a newspaper here."
"No!" cried the girl, incredulously. "Not in the Cove!"
"In the Cove," repeated Mr. Opp, firmly. "There's great need here for a live, enterprising newspaper. It's a virgin field, you might say. There never was a place that needed a public voice more. My paper is going to be a voice that hears all sides of a question; it's going to appeal to the aged and the young and all them that lies between."
"It will be mighty grand for us!" said his companion, with interest. "When is it going to start?"
Definite plans being decidedly nebulous, Mr. Opp wisely confined himself to generalities. He touched casually on his remarkable fitness for the work, his wide experience, his worldly knowledge. He hinted that in time he expected to venture into even deeper literary waters—poetry, and a novel, perhaps. As he talked, he realized that for the second time that day he was looked upon with approval. Being accepted at his own estimate proved a new and exhilarating sensation.
It was pleasant on the wide porch, with the honeysuckle shutting out the sun, and the long, yellow blossoms filling the air with fragrance. It was pleasant to hear the contented chuckle of the hens and the sleepy hum of the bees, and the sound of his own voice; but most of all it was pleasant, albeit disconcerting, to glance sidewise occasionally and find a pair of credulous brown eyes raised to his in frank admiration. What if the swing of the hammock was making him dizzy and one foot had gone to sleep? These were minor considerations unworthy of mention.
"And just to think," the girl was saying, "that you may be right across the road! I won't mind staying at home so much if you'll let me come over and see you make the newspaper."
"You might like to assist sometime," said Mr. Opp, magnanimously, at the same time cautiously removing a fluttering pink ribbon from his knee. "I could let you try your hand on a wedding or a 'bituary, or something along that line."
"Oh, really?" she cried, her eyes brightening. "I'd just love to. I can write compositions real nice, and you could help me a little."
"Yes," agreed Mr. Opp; "I could learn you to do the first draft, and I could put on the extra touches."
So engrossed did they become in these plans that they did not hear the click of the gate, or see the small, aggressive lady who came up the walk. She moved with the confident air of one who is in the habit of being obeyed. Her skirt gave the appearance of no more daring to hang wrong than her bonnet-strings would have presumed to move from the exact spot where she had tied them under her left ear. Her small, bright eyes, slightly crossed, apparently saw two ways at once, for on her brief journey from the gate to the porch, she decapitated two withered geraniums on the right, and picked up a stray paper and some dead leaves on the left.
"Guin-never!" she called sharply, not seeing the couple on the porch, "who's been tracking mud in on my clean steps?"
The girl rose hastily and came forward. "Mother," she said, "here's Mr. Opp."
Mrs. Gusty glanced up from one to the other, evidently undecided how to meet the situation. But the hesitancy was not for long; Mr. Opp's watch-fob, glittering in the sunlight, symbolized such prosperity that she hastily extended a cordial hand of welcome.
"You don't mean to tell me Guin-never has been keeping you out here on the porch instead of taking you in the parlor? And hasn't she given you a thing to drink? Well, just wait till I get my things off and I'll fix a pitcher of lemonade."
"Let me do it, Mother," said Guinevere, eagerly; "I often do it at school."
"I'd hate to drink what you make," said Mrs. Gusty, waving her aside. "You show Mr. Opp in the parlor. No; I'll open the shutters: you'd get your hands dirty." She bustled about with that tyrannical capability that reduces every one near it to a state of helpless dependence.
The parlor was cool and dark, and Mr. Opp felt around for a chair while the refractory shutter was being opened. When at last a shaft of light was admitted, it fell full upon a sable frame which hung above the horse-hair sofa, and inclosed a glorified certificate of the births, marriages, and deaths in the house of Gusty. Around these written data was a border realistically depicting the seven ages of man and culminating in a legend of gold which read
From the Cradle to the Grave.
While Mr. Opp was standing before this work of art, apparently deeply interested, he was, in reality, peeping through a crack in the shutter. The sunlight was still filtering through the honeysuckle vines, making dancing, white patches on the porch, the bees were humming about the blossoms, and Miss Guinevere Gusty was still sitting in the hammock, her chin in her palms, gazing down the road.
When Mrs. Gusty returned, she bore a glass pitcher of lemonade, a plate of crisp gingersnaps, and a tumbler of crushed ice, all of which rested upon a tray which was covered with her strawberry centerpiece, a mark of distinction which, unfortunately, was lost upon her guest.
Mr. Opp, being a man of business, plunged at once into his subject, presenting the matter so eloquently and using so much more persuasion than was necessary that he overshot the mark. Mrs. Gusty was not without business sagacity herself, and when Mr. Opp met a possible objection before it had ever occurred to her, she promptly made use of the suggestion.
"Of course," said Mr. Opp, as a final inducement, "I'd be glad to run in some of Mr. Gusty's poetical pieces from time to time."
This direct appeal to her sentiment so touched Mrs. Gusty that she suggested they go over to the shop at once and look it over.
For a moment after the door of his future sanctum was thrown open Mr. Opp was disconcerted. The small, dark room, cluttered with all manner of trash, the broken window-panes, the dust, and the cobwebs, presented a prospect that was far from encouraging; but after an examination of the presses, his courage revived.
After a great deal of talk on Mr. Opp's part, and some shrewd bargaining on Mrs. Gusty's, the stupendous transaction was brought to a close, to the eminent satisfaction of both parties.
* * * * *
It was late that night before Mr. Opp retired. He sat in the open window of his bedroom and looked out upon the river. The cool night air and the quiet light of the stars calmed the turmoil in his brain. Gradually the colossal schemes and the towering ambitions gave way to an emotion to which the editor-elect was by no means a stranger. It was a little white-faced Fear that lurked always in a corner of his heart, and could be kept down only by brave words and aggressive deeds.
He sat with his trembling knees hunched, and his arms awkwardly clasped about them, an absurd atom in the great cosmic order; yet the soul that looked out of his squinting, wistful eyes held all the potentialities of life, and embodied the eternal sadness and the eternal inspiration of human endeavor.
It is no small undertaking to embark in an untried ship, upon unknown waters, in the teeth of opposing gales. But Mr. Opp sailed the sea of life as a valiant mariner should, self-reliant, independent, asking advice of nobody. He steered by the guidance of his own peculiar moral compass, regardless of the rough waters through which it led him.
Having invested the major portion of his savings in the present venture, it was necessary to begin operations at once; but events conspired to prevent him. Miss Kippy made many demands upon his time both by day and night; she had transferred her affection and dependence from her father to him, and he found himself sorely encumbered by this new responsibility. Moreover, the attitude of the town toward the innovation of a newspaper was one of frank skepticism, and it proved a delicate and arduous task to create the proper public sentiment. In addition to these troubles, Mr. Opp had a yet graver matter to hinder him: with all his valor and energy he was suffering qualms of uncertainty as to the proper method of starting a weekly journal.
To be sure, he had achieved a name for the paper—a name so eminently satisfactory that he had already had it emblazoned upon a ream of office paper. "The Opp Eagle" had sprung full-syllabled from his teeming brain, and had been accepted over a hundred competitors.
But naming the fledgling was an easy matter compared with getting it out of the nest; and it was not until the instalment of his competent staff that Mr. Opp accomplished the task.
This important transaction took place one morning as he sat in his new office and struggled with his first editorial. The bare room, with the press in the center, served as news-room, press-room, publication office, and editorial sanctum. Mr. Opp sat at a new deal table, with one pen behind his ear, and another in his hand, and gazed for inspiration at the brown wrapping-paper with which he had neatly covered the walls. His mental gymnastics were interrupted by the appearance at the door of Miss Jim Fenton and her brother Nick.
Miss Jim was an anomaly in the community, being by theory a spinster, and by practice a double grass-widow. Capable and self-supporting, she attracted the ne'er-do-wells as a magnet attracts needles, but having been twice induced to forego her freedom and accept the bonds of wedlock, she had twice escaped and reverted to her original type and name. Miss Jim was evidently a victim of one of Nature's most economical moods; she was spare and angular, with a long, wrinkled face surmounted by a scant fluff of pale, frizzled hair. Her mouth slanted upward at one corner, giving her an expression unjustly attributed to coquetry, when in reality it was due to an innocent and pardonable pride in an all-gold eye-tooth.
But it was her clothes that brought misunderstanding, misfortune, and even matrimony upon Miss Jim. They were sent her by the boxful by a cousin in the city, and the fact was unmistakable that they were clothes with a past. The dresses held an atmosphere of evaporated frivolity; flirtations lingered in every frill, and memories of old larks lurked in every furbelow. The hats had a jaunty list to port, and the colored slippers still held a dance within their soles. One old bird of paradise on Miss Jim's favorite bonnet had a chronic wink for the wickedness he had witnessed.
It was this wink that attracted Mr. Opp as he looked up from his arduous labors. For a disconcerting moment he was uncertain whether it belonged to Miss Jim or to the bird.
"Howdy, Mr. Opp," said the lady in brisk, businesslike tones. "I was taking a crayon portrait home to Mrs. Gusty, and I just stopped in to see if I couldn't persuade you to take my brother to help you on the newspaper. You remember Nick, don't you?"
Mr. Opp glanced up. A skeleton of a boy, with a shaven head, was peering eagerly past him into the office, his keen, ferret-like eyes devouring every detail of the printing-presses.
"He knows the business," went on Miss Jim, anxiously pulling at the fingers of her gloves. "He's been in it over a year at Coreyville. He wants to go back; but I ain't willing till he gets stronger. He ain't been up but two weeks."
Mr. Opp turned impressively in his revolving chair, the one luxury which he had deemed indispensable, and doubtfully surveyed the applicant. The mere suggestion of his leaning upon this broken reed seemed ridiculous; yet the boy's thin, sallow face, and Miss Jim's imploring eyes, caused him to hesitate.
"Well, you see," he said, with thumbs together and his lips pursed, after the manner of the various employers before whom he had stood in the past, "we are just making a preliminary start, and we haven't engaged our staff yet. I am a business man and a careful one. I don't feel justified in going to no extra expense until 'The Opp Eagle' is, in a way, on its feet."
"Oh, that's all right," said the boy; "I'll work a month for nothing. Lots of fellows do that on the big papers."
Miss Jim plucked warningly at his sleeve, and Mr. Opp, seeing that Nick's enthusiasm had led him beyond his depth, went gallantly to the rescue.
"Not at all," he said hastily; "that ain't my policy. I think I might contrive to pay you a small, reasonable sum down, and increase it in ratio as the paper become more prosperous. Don't you think you better sit down?"
"No, sir; I'm all right," said the boy, impatiently. "I can do 'most anything about a paper, setting type, printing, reporting, collecting, 'most anything you put me at."
Such timely knowledge, in whatever guise it came, seemed Heaven-sent. Mr. Opp gave a sigh of satisfaction.
"If you feel that you can't do any better than accepting the small sum that just at present I'll have to offer you, why, I think we can come to some arrangement."
"That's mighty nice in you," said Miss Jim, jerking her head forward in order to correct an undue backward gravitation of her bonnet. "If ever you want a crayon portrait, made from life or enlarged from a photograph, I'll make you a special price on it. I'm just taking this here one home to Mrs. Gusty; she had it done for Guin-never's birthday."
Miss Jim removed the wrappings and disclosed a portrait of Miss Guinevere Gusty, very large as to eyes and very small as to mouth. She handed it to Mr. Opp, and called attention to its fine qualities.
"Just look at the lace on that dress! Mrs. Fallows picked a whole pattern off on her needles from one of my portraits. And did you notice the eyelashes; you can actually count 'em! She had four buttons on her dress, but I didn't get in but three; but I ain't going to mention it to Mrs. Gusty. Don't you think it's pretty?"
Mr. Opp, who had been smiling absently at the portrait, started guiltily. "Yes," he said confusedly; "yes, ma'am, I think she is." Then he felt a curious tingling about his ears and realized, to his consternation, that he was blushing.
"She's too droopin' a type for me," said Miss Jim, removing an ostrich tip from her angle of vision; then she continued in a side whisper: "Say, would you mind making Nick take this bottle of milk at twelve o'clock, and resting a little? He ain't as strong as he lets on, and he has sort of sinking spells 'long about noon."
Receiving the bottle thus surreptitiously offered, and assisting the lady to gather up her bundles, Mr. Opp bowed her out, and turned to face the embarrassing necessity of giving instructions to his new employee. He was relieved to find, however, that the young gentleman in question possessed initiative; for Nick had promptly removed his coat, and fallen to work, putting things to rights with an energy and ability that caused Mr. Opp to offer up a prayer of heartfelt gratitude.
All the morning they worked silently, Mr. Opp toiling over his editorial, with constant references to a small dictionary which he concealed in the drawer of the table, and Nick giving the presses a thorough and much-needed overhauling.
At the noon-hour they shared their lunch, and Mr. Opp, firm in the authority invested in him by Miss Jim, demanded that Nick should drink his milk, and recline at length upon the office bench for twenty minutes. It was with great difficulty that Nick was persuaded to submit to this transferred coddling; but he evidently realized that insubordination at the start of his career would be fatal, and, moreover, his limbs ached and his hands trembled.
It was in the intimacy of this, their first, staff meal, that they discussed the policy of the paper.
"Of course," said Mr. Opp, "we have got a vast undertaking in front of us. For the next few months we won't scarcely have time to draw a natural breath. I am going to put every faculty I own on to making 'The Opp Eagle' a fine paper. I expect to get here at seven o'clock A.M., and continue to pursue my work as far into the midnight hours as may need be. Nothing in the way of pleasure or anything else is going to pervert my attention. Of course you understand that my mind will be taken up with the larger issues of things, and I'll have to risk a dependence on you to attend to the smaller details."
"All right," said Nick, gratefully; "you won't be sorry you trusted me, Mr. Opp. I'll do my level best. When will we get out the first issue?"
"Well—er—the truth is," said Mr. Opp, "I haven't, as you might say, accumulated sufficient of material as yet. You see, I have a great many irons in the fire, and besides opening up this office, I am the president of a company that's just bought up twenty acres of ground around here. The biggest oil proposition—"
"Yes, sir," interrupted Nick; "but don't you think we could get started in two weeks, with the ads and the contributors' letters from other counties, and a story or two I could run in, and your editorial page?"
"I've got two advertisements," said Mr. Opp; "but I don't intend to rest content until every man in the Cove has got a card in. Now, about these contributors from other counties?"
"I can manage that," said Nick. "I'll write to some girl or fellow I know in the different towns, and ask them to give me a weekly letter. They sign themselves 'Gipsy' or 'Fairy' or 'Big Injun' or something like that, and tell what's doing in their neighborhood. We'll have to fix the letters up some, but they help fill in like everything."
Mr. Opp's spirits rose at this capable cooeperation.
"You—er—like the name?" he asked.
"'The Opp Eagle'?" said Nick. "Bully!"
Such unqualified approval went to Mr. Opp's head, and he rashly broke through the dignity that should hedge about an editor.
"I don't mind reading you some of my editorial," he said urbanely; "it's the result of considerable labor."
He opened the drawer and took out some loosely written pages, though he knew each paragraph by heart. Squaring himself in his revolving-chair, and clearing his throat, he addressed himself ostensibly to the cadaverous youth stretched at length before him, but in imagination to all the southern counties of the grand old Commonwealth of Kentucky.
His various business experiences had stored such an assorted lot of information in his brain that it was not unlike a country store in the diversity of its contents. His style, like his apparel, was more ornate and pretentious than what lay beneath it. There were many words which he knew by sight, but with which he had no speaking acquaintance. But Mr. Opp had ideals, and this was the first opportunity he had ever had to put them before his fellow-men.
"The great bird of American Liberty," he read impressively, "has soared and flown over the country and lighted at last in your midst. 'The Opp Eagle' appears for the first time to-day. It is no money scheme in which we are indulging; we aim first and foremost to fulfil a much-needed want in the community. 'The Opp Eagle' will tell the people what you want to know better and at less expense than any other method. It will aim at bringing the priceless gems of knowledge within the reach of everybody. For what is bread to the body if you do not also clothe the mind spiritually and mentally?
"We will boom this, our native, city. If possible, I hope to get the streets cleaned up and a railroad, and mayhap in time lamp-posts. This region has ever been known for its great and fine natural resources, but we have been astounded, you might say astonished, in recent visits to see its naked and crude immensities, which far exceeds our most sanguine expectations. So confident are we that a few of our most highly respectable citizens have, at the instigation of the Editor of 'The Opp Eagle,' bought up the land lying between Turtle Creek and the river, and as soon as a little more capital has been accumulated, intend to open up a oil proposition that will astonish the eyes of the natives!
"In all candor, we truly believe this favored region of ours to have no equal in underground wealth nowhere upon this terrestrial earth, albeit we are not of globe-trotter stock nor tribe. We will endeavor to induce the home people to copy after the wise example of a few of our leading citizens and buy up oil rights before the kings of Bonanzas from the Metropolitan cities discover our treasure and wrench it from our grasp. 'The Opp Eagle' will, moreover, stand for temperance and reform. We will hurl grape and cannister into the camps of the saloonatics until they flee the wrath to come. Will also publish a particular statement of all social entertainments, including weddings, parties, church socials, and funerals. In conclusion, would say that we catch this first opportunity to thank you in collective manner herein for the welcome you have ordained 'The Opp Eagle.'"
Mr. Opp came to a close and waited for applause; nor was he disappointed.
"Gee! I wish I could write like that!" said Nick, rising on his elbow. "I can do the printing all right, and hustle around for the news; but I never know how to put on the trimmings."
Mr. Opp laid a hand upon his shoulder; he was fast developing a fondness for the youth.
"It's a gift," he said sympathetically, "that I am afraid, my boy, nobody can't learn you."
"Can I come in?" said a voice from outside, and Mr. Gallop peeped around the open door.
"Walk in," cried Mr. Opp, while Nick sprang to his feet. "We are just by way of finishing up the work at hand, and have a few minutes of spare leisure."
"I just wanted to know if you'd help us get up a town band," said Mr. Gallop. "I told the boys you'd be too busy, but they made me come. I asked Mr. Fallows if you was musical; but I wouldn't repeat what he said."
"Oh, Jimmy is just naturally humoristic," said Mr. Opp. "Go along and tell me what he remarked."
"Well," said Mr. Gallop, indignantly, "he said you was a expert on the wind-pipe! Mr. Tucker, I believe it was, thought you used to play the accordion."
"No," said Mr. Opp; "it was the cornet. I was considerable of a performer at one time."
"Well, we want you for the leader of our band," said Mr. Gallop. "We are going to have blue uniforms and give regular concerts up on Main Street."
Nick Fenny began searching for a pencil.
"You know," went on Mr. Gallop, rapidly, "the last show boat that was here had a calliope, and there's another one coming next week. All I have to do is to hear a tune twice, then I can play it. Miss Guin-never Gusty is going up to Coreyville next week, and she says she'll get us some new pieces. She's going to select a plush self-rocker for the congregation to give the new preacher. They're keeping it awful secret, but I heard 'em mention it over the telephone. The preacher's baby has been mighty sick, and so has his mother, up at the Ridge; but she's got well again. Well, I must go along now. Ain't it warm?"
Before Mr. Opp had ceased showing Mr. Gallop out, his attention was arrested by the strange conduct of his staff. That indefatigable youth was writing furiously on the new wall-paper, covering the clean brown surface with large, scrawling characters.
Mr. Opp's indignation was checked at its source by the radiant face which Nick turned upon him.
"I've got another column!" he cried; "listen here:
"'A new and handsome Show Boat will tie up at the Cove the early part of next week. A fine calliope will be on board.'
"'Miss Guinevere Gusty will visit friends in Coreyville soon.'
"'The new preacher will be greatly surprised soon by the gift of a fine plush rocking-chair from the ladies of the congregation.'
"'The infant baby of the new preacher has been sick, but is better some.'
"'Jimmy Fallows came near getting an undertaking job at the Ridge last week, but the lady got well.'
"And that ain't all," he continued excitedly; "I'm going out now to get all the particulars about that band, and we'll have a long story about it."
Mr. Opp, left alone in his office, made an unsuccessful effort to resume work. The fluttering of the "Eagle's" wings preparatory to taking flight was not the only thing that interfered with his power of concentration. He did not at all like the way he felt. Peculiar symptoms had developed in the last week, and the quinine which he had taken daily had failed to relieve him. He could not say that he was sick,—in fact, he had never been in better health,—but there was a strange feeling of restlessness, a vague disturbance of his innermost being, that annoyed and puzzled him. Even as he tried to solve the problem, an irresistible impulse brought him to his feet and carried him to the door. Miss Guinevere Gusty was coming out of her gate in a soft, white muslin, and a chip hat laden with pink roses.
"Anything I can do for you up street?" she called across pleasantly to Mr. Opp.
"Why, thank you—no, the fact is—well, you see, I find it necessary for me to go up myself." Mr. Opp heard himself saying these words with great surprise, and when he found himself actually walking out of the office, leaving a large amount of unfinished work, his indignation knew no bounds.
"The sun is awful hot. Ain't you goin' to wear a hat?" drawled Miss Guinevere.
Mr. Opp put his hand to his head in some embarrassment, and then assured her that he very often went without it.
They sauntered slowly down the dusty road. On one side the trees hedged them in, but on the other stretched wide fields of tasseled corn over which shimmered waves of summer heat. White butterflies fluttered constantly across their path, and overhead, hidden somewhere in the branches, the birds kept up a constant song. The August sun, still high in the heavens, shone fiercely down on the open road, on the ragweed by the wayside, on the black-eyed Susans nodding at the light; but it fell most mercilessly of all upon the bald spot on the head of the unconscious Mr. Opp, who was moving, as in an hypnotic state, into the land of romance.
By all the laws of physics, Mr. Opp during the months that ensued, should have stood perfectly still. For if ever two forces pulled with equal strength in opposite directions, love and ambition did in the heart of our friend the editor. But Mr. Opp did not stand still; on the contrary, he seemed to be moving in every direction at once.
In due time "The Opp Eagle" made its initial flight, and received the approbation of the community. The first page was formal, containing the editorial, a list of the subscribers, a notice to tax-payers, and three advertisements, one of which requested "the lady public to please note that the hats put out by Miss Duck Brown do not show the wire composing the frame."
But the first page of the "Eagle" was like the front door of a house: when once you got on the other side of it, you were in the family, as it were, formality was dropped, and an easy atmosphere of familiarity prevailed. You read that Uncle Enoch Siller had Sundayed over at the Ridge, or that Aunt Gussy Williams was on the puny list, and frequently there were friendly references to "Ye Editor" or "Ye Quill Driver," for after soaring to dizzy heights in his editorials, Mr. Opp condescended to come down on the second page and move in and out of the columns, as a host among his guests.
It is painful to reflect what would have been the fate of the infatuated Mr. Opp in these days had it not been for the faithful Nick. Nick's thirst for work was insatiable; he yearned for responsibility, and was never so happy as when gathering news. He chased an item as a dog might chase a rat, first scenting it, then hunting it down, and after mutilating it a bit, proudly returning it to his master.
Mr. Opp was enabled, by this competent assistance, to spare many a half-hour in consultation with Miss Guinevere Gusty concerning the reportorial work she was going to do on the paper. The fact that nobody died or got married delayed all actual performance, but in order to be ready for the emergency, frequent calls were deemed expedient.
It became part of the day's program to read her his editorial, or consult her about some social item, or to report a new subscriber, his self-esteem meanwhile putting forth all manner of new shoots and bursting into exotic bloom under the warmth of her approval.
Miss Gusty, on her part, was acquiring a new interest in her surroundings. In addition to the subtle flattery of being consulted, she was the recipient of daily offerings of books, and music, and drugstore candy, and sometimes a handful of flowers, carefully concealed in a newspaper to escape the vigilant eye of Jimmy Fallows.
On several occasions she returned Mr. Opp's calls, picking her way daintily across the road, and peeping in at the window to make sure he was there.
It was at such times that the staff of "The Opp Eagle" misconducted itself. It objected to a young woman in the press-room; it disapproved of the said person sitting at the deal table in confidential conversation with the editor; it saw no humor in her dipping the pencils into the ink-well, and scrawling names on the new office stationery; and when the point was reached that she moved about the office, asking absurd questions and handling the type, the staff could no longer endure it, but hastened forth to forget its annoyance in the pursuit of business.
Moreover, the conduct of the chief, as Nick was pleased to call Mr. Opp, was becoming more and more peculiar. He would arrive in the morning, his pockets bristling with papers, and his mind with projects. He would attack the work of the day with ferocious intensity, then in the midst of it, without warning, he would lapse into an apparent trance, his hands in his pockets, his eyes on the ceiling, and such a smile on his face as one usually reserves for a camera.
Nick did not know that it was the song of the siren that was calling Mr. Opp, who, instead of lashing himself to the mast and steering for the open sea, was letting his little craft drift perilously near the rocky coast.
No feature of the proceedings was lost upon Mrs. Gusty. She applied the same method to her daughter that she did to her vines, tying her firmly to the wall of her own ability, and prescribing the direction and length to which she should grow. The situation would need pruning later, but for the present she studied conditions and bided her time.
Meanwhile the "Eagle" was circling more widely in its flight. Mr. Opp's persistent and eloquent articles pertaining to the great oil wealth of the region had been reinforced by a favorable report from the laboratory in the city to which he had sent a specimen from the spring on Turtle Creek. Thus equipped with wings of hope, and a small ballast of fact, the "Eagle" went soaring on its way, and in time attracted the attention of a party of capitalists who were traveling through the State, investigating oil and mineral possibilities.
One epoch-making day, the editor was called up over the long-distance telephone, and, after answering numerous inquiries, was told that the party expected to spend the following night in the Cove.
This important event took place the last of November, and threw the town into great excitement. Mr. Opp received the message early in the morning, and immediately set to work to call a meeting of the Turtle Creek Land Company.
"This here is one of the most critical moments in the history of Cove City," he announced excitedly to Nick. "It's a most fortunate thing that they've got me here to make the preliminary arrangements, and to sort of get the thing solidified, as you might say. I'll call a meeting for eleven o'clock at Your Hotel. You call up old man Hager and the preacher, and I will undertake to notify Jimmy Fallows and Mr. Tucker."
"The preacher ain't in town; he's out at Smither's Ridge, marrying a couple. I got the whole notice written out beforehand."