THE DESIRED WOMAN
By WILL N. HARBEN
Author of "Dixie Hart," "Pole Baker," "The Redemption of Kenneth Galt," Etc.
VELLA AND BILLY
Inside the bank that June morning the clerks and accountants on their high stools were bent over their ponderous ledgers, although it was several minutes before the opening hour. The gray-stone building was in Atlanta's most central part on a narrow street paved with asphalt which sloped down from one of the main thoroughfares to the section occupied by the old passenger depot, the railway warehouses, and hotels of various grades. Considerable noise, despite the closed windows and doors, came in from the outside. Locomotive bells slowly swung and clanged; steam was escaping; cabs, drays, and trucks rumbled and creaked along; there was a whir of a street-sweeping machine turning a corner and the shrill cries of newsboys selling the morning papers.
Jarvis Saunders, member of the firm of Mostyn, Saunders & Co., bankers and brokers, came in; and, hanging his straw hat up, he seated himself at his desk, which the negro porter had put in order.
"I say, Wright"—he addressed the bald, stocky, middle-aged man who, at the paying-teller's window, was sponging his fat fingers and counting and labeling packages of currency—"what is this about Mostyn feeling badly?"
"So that's got out already?" Wright replied in surprise, as he approached and leaned on the rolling top of the desk. "He cautioned us all not to mention it. You know what a queer, sensitive sort of man he is where his health or business is concerned."
"Oh, it is not public," Saunders replied. "I happened to meet Dr. Loyd on the corner. He had just started to explain more fully when a patient stopped to speak to him, and so I didn't wait, as he said Mostyn was here."
"Yes, he's in his office now." Wright nodded toward the frosted glass door in the rear. "He was lying on the lounge when I left him just now. It is really nothing serious. The doctor says it is only due to loss of sleep and excessive mental strain, and that a few weeks' rest in some quiet place will straighten him out."
"Well, I'm glad it is not serious," Saunders said. "I have seen him break down before. He is too intense, too strenuous; whatever he does he does with every nerve in his body drawn as taut as a fiddle- string."
"It is his outside operations, his private deals," the teller went on, in a more confidential tone. "Why, it makes me nervous even to watch him. He's been keyed high for the last week. You know, I'm an early riser, and I come down before any one else to get my work up. I found him here this morning at half past seven. He was as nervous as a man about to be hanged. He couldn't sit or stand still a minute. He was waiting for a telegram from Augusta concerning Warner & Co. I remember how you advised him against that deal. Well, I guess if it had gone against him it would have ruined him."
The banker nodded. "Yes, that was foolhardy, and he seemed to me to be going into it blindfolded. He realized the danger afterward. He admitted it to me last night at the club. He said that he was sorry he had not taken my advice. He was afraid, too, that Delbridge would get on to it and laugh at him."
"Delbridge is too shrewd to tackle a risk like that," Wright returned. He glanced about the room cautiously, and then added: "I don't know as I have any right to be talking about Mostyn's affairs even to you, but I am pretty sure that he got good news. He didn't show me the telegram when it came, but I watched his face as he read it. I saw his eyes flash; he smiled at me, walked toward his office with a light step, as he always does when he's lucky, and then he swayed sideways and keeled over in a dead faint. The porter and I picked him up, carried him to his lounge, and sprinkled water in his face. Then we sent for the doctor. He gave him a dose of something or other and told him not to do a lick of work for a month."
"Well, I'll step in and see him." Saunders rose. "I guess he won't mind. He's too big a plunger for a town of this size. He lets things get on his nerves too much. He has no philosophy of life. I wouldn't go his pace for all the money in the U. S. Treasury."
"Right you are," the teller returned, as he went back to his work.
Opening the door of his partner's office, Saunders found him seated on the lounge smoking a cigar. He was about thirty-five years of age, tall, broad-shouldered, with blue eyes, yellow mustache, and was good- looking and well built. Glancing up, he smiled significantly and nodded. There were dark rings round his eyes, and the hand holding his cigar quivered nervously.
"I suppose you heard of that silly duck fit of mine?" he smiled, the corners of his rather sensuous mouth twitching.
Saunders nodded as he sat down in the revolving-chair at the desk and slowly swung it round till he faced his partner.
"It's a wonder to me that you are able to talk about it," he said, sharply. "You've been through enough in the last ten days to kill a dozen ordinary men. You've taken too many stimulants, smoked like the woods afire, and on top of it all instead of getting natural sleep you've amused yourself at all hours of the night. You've bolted your food, and fussed and fumed over Delbridge's affairs, which, heaven knows, have nothing at all to do with your own."
"I suppose I do keep track of the fellow," Mostyn smiled. "People compare us constantly. We started about the same time, and it rankles to hear of his making a lucky strike just when I've had a tumble. This matter of my backing Warner when I went to Augusta they told me they had met with more bad luck, and if I didn't advance fresh funds they would have to go under. It was the biggest risk I ever took, but I took it. I raised the money on my street-railway bonds. For a day or so afterward I was hopeful, but they quit writing and wouldn't answer my wires. My lawyer in Augusta wrote me that they were all three on the verge of suicide, and if they could not close a certain deal in Boston they would go under. That's what I've been waiting on for the last week, and that's why I've been crazy. But it is all right now— all right. I'm safe, and I made money, too—money that Delbridge would like to have."
"There are no two ways about it." Saunders reached for a cigar in a tray on the desk and cut off the tip with a paper-knife. "You've got to take a rest and get your mind off of business."
"Nobody knows that better than I do," Mostyn said, a sickly smile playing over his wan face, "and I'm in the mood for it. I feel as a man feels who has just escaped the gallows. I'm going to the mountains, and I don't intend to open a business letter or think once of this hot hole in a wall for a month. I'm going to fish and hunt and lie in the shade and swap yarns with mossback moonshiners. I've just been thinking of it, and it's like a soothing dream of peace and quiet. You know old Tom Drake's place near your farm? I boarded there two weeks three years ago and loved every cat and dog about. Tom told me to come any time I felt like it."
"No better place anywhere," Saunders said. "I shall run up home now and then, and can see you and report, but you needn't bother about us; we'll keep this thing afloat. I'm wondering how you are going to get away from your social duties. They usually claim you at this time of the year. Old Mitchell and his daughter will certainly miss you."
Mostyn stared at his friend steadily. "They are off for Atlantic City Monday. They hinted at my joining them, but I declined. I was worried at the time over this deal, but I need something quieter than that sort of trip. You are always coupling my name with Miss Irene's. I'm not the favorite in that quarter that you make me out."
"I have eyes and ears and some experience in human nature." Saunders puffed at his cigar. He felt that his friend was expecting what he was saying. "Mitchell is getting in his dotage, and he talks very freely to me at times."
"Surely not about—about me and Irene?" Mostyn said, a ripple of interest in his tone.
"Oh yes, he quite lets himself go now and then. He thinks the sun rises and sets in you. He is constantly talking about your rapid rise and keen business judgment."
"You can't mean that he's ever gone so—so far as actually to speak of me in—in connection with his daughter?" Mostyn said, tentatively.
"I may as well tell you that he has." Saunders felt that the subject was a delicate one. "At least, he has expressed the hope that you and she would care for each other. He knew your father and liked him, and he has been afraid that Miss Irene might fancy some young fellow with no sort of chance in the world. He speaks quite freely of her as his sole heiress, often showing me the actual figures of what he expects to leave her."
A touch of red appeared in Mostyn's cheeks. "He is getting old and garrulous," he said. "I really have been of some help to him. It happens that I've never advised him wrongly in any venture he has made, and I suppose he overrates my ability; but, really, I give you my word that I have not thought seriously of marrying any one. I suppose some men would call me a fool—a cold-blooded fellow like Delbridge would, I am sure, but I've always had a dream of running across my ideal somewhere and of marrying solely for the sake of old- fashioned love itself."
"What man hasn't?" Saunders responded, thoughtfully. "After all, very few men, at least here in the South, marry for convenience or financial advancement. There is Stillman; he married a typewriter in his office, a beautiful character, and they are as happy as a pair of doves. Then you remember Ab Thornton and Sam Thorpe. Both of them could have tied up to money, I suppose, but somehow they didn't. After all, it is the best test of a man."
"Yes, that certainly is true," Mostyn said, "the ideal is the thing. I really believe I have two distinct sides to me—the romantic and the practical. So you needn't count on—on what you were speaking of just now. I think the young lady is somewhat like myself. At times she seems to have dreams, and I am not the Prince Charming that rides through them."
At his own desk a few minutes later Saunders sat wrapped in thought. "He doesn't really love her," he mused, "and she doesn't love him, but they will marry. His eyes kindled when I mentioned her money. He may think he can stand out against it, but he can't. In his better moments he leans toward the higher thing, but the current of greed has caught him and will sweep him along."
At this juncture Saunders's attention was drawn to the paying-teller's window.
"I tell you you can't see him this morning." Wright was speaking firmly to an elderly man who stood clinging desperately to the wire grating. "He's not well and is lying down."
"So he's lying down, is he?" was the snarling response. "He's lying down while I have to walk the streets without a cent through his rascality. You tell him I'm going to see him if I have to wait here all day."
"Who is it?" Saunders asked, being unable to recognize the speaker from his position.
Wright turned to him. "It's old Jeff Henderson," he said, "still harping on the same old string. He's blocking up the window. A thing like that ought not to be allowed. If I was the president of this bank, and a man like that dared to—"
"Let him in at the side door, and send him to me," Saunders ordered, in a gentle tone. "I'll see him."
A moment later the man entered, and shuffled in a slipshod way up to Saunders's desk. He was about seventy years of age, wore a threadbare frock coat, baggy trousers, disreputable shoes, and a battered silk hat of ancient, bell-shaped pattern. He was smooth-shaven, quite pale, and had scant gray hair which in greasy, rope-like strands touched his shoulders. He was nervously chewing a cheap, unlighted cigar, and flakes of damp tobacco clung to his shirt-front.
"You were inquiring for Mostyn," Saunders said, quietly. "He is not at work this morning, Mr. Henderson. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"I don't know whether you can or not," the old man said, as he sank into a chair and leaned forward on his walking-cane. "I don't know whether anybody can or not. I don't believe there is any law or justice anywhere. You and him are partners, but I don't believe you know him clean to the bottom as well as I do. You wouldn't be in business with him if you did, for you are a straight man—a body can tell that by your eye and voice—and I've never heard of any shady, wildcat scheme that you ever dabbled in."
"We are getting away from the other matter," Saunders reminded him, softly. "You came to see Mostyn."
"I came to give him a piece of my mind, young man—that's what I'm here for. He dodges me. Say, do you know how he got his start—the money he put in this bank? Well, I can tell you, and I'll bet he never did. He started the Holly Creek Cotton Mills. It was his idea. I thought he was honest and straight. He was going round trying to interest capital. I never had a head for business. The war left me flat on my back with all the family niggers free, but a chunk of money came to my children—fifty thousand dollars. It stood in their name, but I got their legal consent to handle it. Mostyn knew I had it and was constantly ding-donging at me about his mill idea. Well, I went in—I risked the whole amount. He was made president although he didn't hold ten thousand dollars' worth of stock. Then I reckon you know what happened. He run the thing plumb in the ground, claimed to be losing money—said labor was too high; claimed that the wrong sort of machinery had been put in. It went from bad to worse for twelve months, then it shut down. The operatives moved away, and it was sold under the hammer. Who bought it in—my God, who do you reckon bid it in for twenty-five cents on the dollar? Why, the same smooth young duck that is taking a nap in his fine private quarters back there now. Then what did he do? Why, all at once he found that the machinery was all right and labor could be had. Out of his own pocket with money he had made in some underhand deal or other he added on a wing, filled it with spindles and looms, built more cottages, and three years later the stock had hopped up to two for one, and little to be had at that. He next started this bank, and here I sit in it"—the old man swept the interior with a slow glance—"without a dollar to my name and my daughters hiring out for barely enough to keep rags on their bodies. Say, what do you think—"
"I am afraid the courts are the only place to settle a matter upon which two parties disagree," Saunders said, diplomatically, though a frown of sympathy lay on his handsome dark face.
"The courts be damned!" the old man growled, pounding the floor with his stick. "I did take it to law. I spent the twelve thousand and odd dollars that I rescued from the ruin in suing him, only to discover that the law itself favors the shyster who has money and is sharp enough to circumvent it."
"I am sorry, but there is absolutely nothing I can do to help you, Mr. Henderson," Saunders said, lamely. "Of course, I mean in regard to this particular matter. If you are in want, however, and any reasonable amount would be of service to you—why, on my own account I am willing—"
"I don't mean that," the old man broke in, tremulously. "You are very kind. I know you would help me, you show it in your face; but I don't want that sort of thing. It is—is my rights I'm after. I—I can't face my children after the way I acted. I simply trusted Mostyn with my all—my life's blood—don't you see? I remember when I was hesitating, and a neighbor had hinted that Mostyn was too high a flyer—going with fast women and the like—to be quite safe—I remember, I say, that the commandment 'Judge not that ye be not judged' came in my head, and I refused to listen to a word against him. But you see how it ended."
"I wish I could help you," Saunders said again, "but I don't see what I can do."
"I don't either." The old man sighed heavily as he got up. "Everybody tells me I am a fool to cry over spilt milk when even the law won't back me; but I'm getting close to the end, and somehow I can't put my mind on anything else." He laid his disengaged hand on Saunders's shoulder almost with the touch of a parent. "I'll say one thing more, and then I'm gone. You've done me good this morning—that is, some. I don't feel quite so—so hurt inside. It's because you offered to—to trust me. I won't forget that soon, Saunders, and I'm not going to come in here any more. If I have to see him I will meet him somewhere else. Good-by."
Saunders watched the bent form shamble between the counters and desks and disappear.
"Poor old chap!" he said. "The shame of his lack of judgment is killing him."
Just then the door of Mostyn's office opened, and Mostyn himself came out. He paused over an electric adding-machine which was being manipulated by a clerk, gave it an idle glance, and then came on to his partner.
"Albert says old Henderson was here talking to you," he said, coldly. "I suppose it's the old complaint?"
"Yes," Saunders nodded, as he looked up. "I did what I could to pacify him; he is getting into a bad mental shape."
"He seems to be growing worse and worse." Mostyn went on, irritably. "I heard he had actually threatened my life. I don't want to take steps to restrain him, but I'll have to if he keeps it up. I can't afford to have him slandering me on every street-corner as he is doing. Every business man knows I was not to blame in that deal. The courts settled that for good and all."
Saunders made no comment. He fumbled a glass paper-weight with one hand and tugged at his brown mustache with the fingers of the other. Mostyn stared into his calm eyes impatiently.
"What do you think I ought to do?" he finally asked.
"I am in no position to say," Saunders answered, awkwardly. "It is a matter for you to decide. His condition is really pitiful. His family seem to be in actual need. Girls brought up as his daughters were brought up don't seem to know exactly how to make a living."
"Well, I can't pay money back to him," Mostyn said, angrily. "I'd make an ass of myself, and admit my indebtedness to many others who happened to lose in that mill. His suit against me cost me several thousand dollars, and he has injured me in all sorts of ways with his slanderous tongue. He'll have to let up. I won't stand it any longer."
Therewith Mostyn turned and went back to his office. Closing the door behind him, he started to throw himself on the lounge, but instead sat down at his desk, took up a pen and drew some paper to him. "I'll write Tom Drake and ask him if he has room for me," he said. "Up there in the mountains I'll throw the whole thing off and take a good rest."
J. Cuyler Mitchell got out of his landau in the porte cochere of his stately residence on Peachtree Street, and, aided by his gold-headed ebony cane, ascended the steps of the wide veranda, where he stood fanning his face with his Panama hat. Larkin, the negro driver, glanced over his shoulder after him.
"Anything mo', Marse John?" he inquired.
"No, I'm through with the horses for to-day," the old man returned. "Put them up, and rub them down well."
As the landau moved along the curving drive to the stables in the rear Mitchell sauntered around to the shaded part of the veranda and went in at the front door. He was tall, seventy-five years of age, slender and erect, had iron-gray hair and a mustache and pointed goatee of the same shade. He was hanging his hat on the carved mahogany rack in the hall when Jincy, a young colored maid, came from the main drawing-room on the right. She had a feather duster in her hand and wore a turban- like head-cloth, a neat black dress, and a clean white apron.
"Where is Irene?" he inquired.
The maid was about to answer when a response came from above.
"Here I am, father," cried Miss Mitchell. "Can't you come up here? I've been washing my hair; I've left it loose to dry. There is more breeze up here."
"If you want to see me you'll trot down here," the old gentleman said, crustily. "I put myself out to make that trip down-town for you, and I'll be hanged if I climb those steps again till bed-time."
"Well, I'll be down in a minute," his daughter replied. "I know you have no very bad news, or you would have been more excited. You see, I know you."
Mitchell grunted, dropped his stick into an umbrella-holder, and turned into the library, where he again encountered the maid, now vigorously dusting a bookcase.
"Leave it, leave it!" he grumbled. "I don't want to be breathing that stuff into my lungs on a day like this. There is enough dust in the streets without having actually to eat it at home."
With a sly look and a low impulsive titter of amusement the yellow girl restored a vase to its place and turned into the study adjoining.
"Get out of there, too!" Mitchell ordered. "I want to read my paper, and you make me nervous with your swishing and knocking about."
"I can slide the doors to," Jincy suggested, as she stood hesitatingly in the wide opening.
"And cut off all the air!" was the tart response. "From now on I want you to pick times for this sort of work when I'm out of the house. My life is one eternal jumping about to accommodate you. I want comfort, and I'm going to have it."
Shrugging her shoulders, the maid left the room. Mitchell had seated himself near an open window and taken up his paper when his daughter came down the steps and entered. She was above medium height, had abundant chestnut hair, blue eyes, a good figure, and regular features, the best of which was a sweet, thin-lipped, sensitive mouth. She had on a blue kimono and dainty slippers, and moved with luxurious ease and grace.
"You ought to have more patience with the servants, father," she said, testily. "Jincy is slow enough, heaven knows, without you giving her excuses for being behind with her work. Now she will go to the kitchen and hinder the cook. If you only knew how much trouble servants are to manage you'd be more tactful. Half a dozen women in this town want that girl, and she knows it. Mrs. Anderson wants to take her to New York to nurse her baby, and she would propose it if she wasn't afraid I'd be angry."
Mitchell shook out his paper impatiently and scanned the head-lines over his nose-glasses. "You don't seem very much interested in my trip downtown, I must say."
"Well, perhaps I would be," she smiled, "but, you see, I know from your actions that he isn't much sick. If he had been you'd have mounted those steps three at a time. Do you know everybody is laughing over your interest in Dick Mostyn? Why, you are getting childish about him. I'm not so sure that he is really so wonderful as you make him out. Many persons think Alan Delbridge is a better business man, and as for his being a saint—oh my!"
"I don't care what they think," Mitchell retorted. "They don't know him as well as I do. He wouldn't be under the weather to-day if he hadn't overworked, but he is all right now. The doctor says he only needs rest, and Dick is going to the mountains for a month. As for that, I can't for the life of me see why—"
"Why, Atlantic City with us wouldn't do every bit as well," Irene laughed out impulsively. "Oh, you are funny!"
"Well, I don't see why," the old man said. "If you two really do care for each other I can't see why you really would want to be apart the best month in the year."
Irene gave her damp, fragrant hair a shake on one side and laughed as she glanced at him mischievously. "You must really not meddle with us," she said. "Three people can't run an affair like that."
Mitchell folded his paper, eyed her suspiciously for a moment, and then asked: "Is Andrew Buckton going to Atlantic City? If he is, you may as well tell me. I simply am not going to put up with that fellow's impudence. People think you care for him—do you hear me?— some people say you like him as well as he does you, and if he wasn't as poor as Job's turkey that you'd marry him."
Miss Mitchell avoided her father's eyes. She shook out her hair again, and ran her white, ringed fingers through its brown depths. "Haven't I promised you not to think of Andy in—in any serious way?" she faltered. "His mother and sister are nice, and I don't want to offend them. You needn't keep bringing his name up." Her fine lips were twitching. "I'd not be a natural woman if I didn't appreciate his—his honest admiration."
"Honest nothing!" Mitchell blurted out. "He thinks you are going to have money, and he believes you'll be silly enough to be influenced by his puppy love to make a fool of yourself. Besides, he's in the way. He took you to a dance not long ago when Mostyn wanted to go with you. Dick told me at the bank that he was going to invite you, and then that young blockhead called for you."
Miss Mitchell had the air of one subduing interest. She forced a faint smile into the general gravity of her face. "Andy had asked me a month before," she said, "or, rather, his mother asked me for him the day the cards were sent out."
"I knew she had a hand in it," Mitchell retorted, in a tone of conviction. "That old woman is the most cold-blooded matchmaker in the State, and she's playing with you like a cat with a mouse. They want my money, I tell you—that's what they are after. I know how the old thing talks to you—she's always telling you her darling boy is dying of grief, and all that foolishness."
Irene avoided her father's eyes. She wound a thick wisp of her hair around her head and began to fasten it with a hairpin. He heard her sigh. Then she looked straight at him.
"You are bothering entirely too much," she half faltered, in a tone that was all but wistful. "Now, I'll make you a promise if—if you'll make me one. You are afraid Dick Mostyn and I will never come to—to an understanding, but it is all right. I know I must be sensible, and I intend to be. I'm more practical than I look. Now, here is what I am going to propose. Andy Buckton may be at Atlantic City with his mother, and I want you to treat them decently. If you will be nice to them I will assure you that when Dick gets back from the mountains he will propose and I will accept him."
"You talk as if you knew positively that he—"
"I understand him," the young lady said. "I know him even better than you do, with all your business dealings together. Now, that will have to satisfy you, and you've got to let me see Andy up there. You simply must."
"Well, I don't care," the old man said, with a breath of relief. "This is the first time you ever have talked any sort of sense on the subject."
"I know nothing else will suit you," Irene said, with a look of abstraction in her eyes, "and I have made up my mind to let you have your way."
There was a tremulous movement to her breast, a quaver in her voice, of which she seemed slightly ashamed, for she turned suddenly and left the room.
At the gate in front of his farmhouse in the mountains Tom Drake received a letter from the rural mail-carrier, who was passing in a one-horse buggy.
"That's all this morning, Tom," the carrier said, cheerfully. "You've got good corn and cotton in the bottom below here."
"Purty good, I reckon, if the drouth don't kill 'em," the farmer answered. The carrier drove on, and Tom slowly opened his letter and turned toward the house. He was a typical Georgia mountaineer, strong, tall, broad-shouldered, middle-aged. He wore no beard, had mild brown eyes, heavy chestnut hair upon which rested a shapeless wool hat full of holes. His arms and legs were long, his gait slouching and deliberate. He was in his shirt-sleeves; his patched jean trousers were too large at the waist, and were supported by a single home- knitted suspender. He was chewing tobacco, and as he went along he moved his stained lips in the audible pronunciation of the words he was reading.
His wife, Lucy, a slender woman, in a drab print dress with no sort of adornment to it or to her scant, tightly knotted hair, stood on the porch impatiently waiting for him. Behind her, leaning in the doorway, was her brother, John Webb, a red-haired, red-faced bachelor, fifty years of age, who also had his eyes on the approaching reader.
"Another dun, I reckon," Mrs. Drake said, tentatively, when her husband had paused at the bottom step and glanced up from the sheet in his hand.
"Not this time." Tom slowly spat on the ground, and looked first at his wife and then at his brother-in-law with a broadening smile. "You two are as good at guessin' as the general run, but if I gave you a hundred trials—yes, three hundred—and all day to do it in, you wouldn't then come in a mile o' what's in this letter."
"I don't intend to try," Mrs. Drake said, eagerly, "anyways not with all that ironin' to do that's piled up like a haystack on the dinin'- room table, to say nothin' of the beds and bed-clothes to be sunned. You can keep your big secret as far as I'm concerned."
"It's another Confederate Veteran excursion to some town whar whisky is sold," said the bachelor, with a dry cackle. "That's my guess. You fellows that was licked don't git no pensions from Uncle Sam, but you manage to have enough fun once a year to make up for it."
Tom Drake swept the near-by mountain slope with his slow glance of amusement, folded the sheet tantalizingly, and spat again.
"I don't know, Luce," he said to his wife, as he wiped his lips on his shirt-sleeve, "that it is a good time to tell you on top o' your complaint of over-work, but Dick Mostyn, your Atlanta boarder, writes that he's a little bit run down an' wants to come an' stay a solid month. Money seems to be no object to him, an' he says if he kin just git the room he had before an' a chance at your home cooking three times a day he will be in clover."
"Well, well, well!" Lucy cried, in a tone of delight, "so he wants to come ag'in, an' all this time I've been thinkin' he'd never think of us any more. There wasn't a thing for him to do that summer but lie around in the shade, except now an' then when he was off fishin' or huntin'."
"Well, I hope you will let 'im come," John Webb drawled out, in his slow fashion. "I can set an' study a town dude like him by the hour an' never git tired. I never kin somehow git at what sech fellers think about or do when they are at home. He makes money, but how? His hands are as soft an' white as a woman's. His socks are as thin an' flimsy as spider-webs. He had six pairs o' pants, if he had one, an' a pair o' galluses to each pair. I axed him one day when they was all spread out on his bed what on earth he had so many galluses for, an' Mostyn said—I give you my word I'm not jokin'—he said"— Webb laughed out impulsively—"he said it was to keep from botherin' to button 'em on ever' time he changed! He said"—the bachelor continued to laugh—"that he could just throw the galluses over his shoulders when he was in a hurry an' be done with the job. Do you know, folks, if I was as lazy as that I'd be afraid the Lord would cut me off in my prime. Why, a feller on a farm has to do more than that ever' time he pulls a blade o' fodder or plants a seed o' corn."
"Well, of course, I want 'im to come." Mrs. Drake had not heard a word of her brother's rambling comment, and there was a decidedly expectant intonation in her voice. "Nobody's usin' the company-room, an' the presidin' elder won't be here till fall. Mr. Mostyn never was a bit of trouble and seemed to love everything I set before him. But I reckon we needn't feel so flattered. He's coming here so he'll be near Mr. Saunders when he runs up to his place on Sundays."
John Webb, for such a slow individual, had suddenly taken on a new impetus. He left his sister and her husband and passed through the passage bisecting the lower part of the plain two-story house and went out at the rear door. In the back yard he found his nephew, George Drake, a boy of fifteen years, seated on the grass repairing a ragged, mud-stained fish-net.
"Who told you you could be out o' school, young feller?" John demanded, dryly. "I'll bet my life you are playin' hookey. You think because your sister's the teacher you can run wild like a mountain shote. My Lord, look at your clothes! I'll swear it would be hard to tell whether you've got on anything or not—that is, anything except mud an' slime. Have you been tryin' to pull that seine through the creek by yourself?"
The boy, who had a fine head and profile and was stoutly built and generally good-looking, was too busy with his strings and knots to look up. "Some fool left it in the creek, and it's laid there for the last month," he mumbled. "I had to go in after it, and it was all tangled up and clogged with mud. Dolly knew I wasn't going to school to-day."
"She knew it when you didn't turn up at roll-call, I bound you," Webb drawled. "Say, do you know a young gal like her ain't strong enough to lick scholars as sound as they ought to be licked, and thar is some talk about appointin' some able-bodied man that lives close about to step in an' sort o' clean up two or three times a week. I don't know but what I'd like the job. A feller that goes as nigh naked as you do would be a blame good thing to practise on."
"Huh!" the boy sniffed, as he tossed back his shaggy brown hair. "You talk mighty big. I'd like to see you try to whip me—I shore would."
"Well, I may give you the chance if Dolly calls on me to help 'er out," Webb laughed. "Say, I started to tell you a secret, but I won't."
"I already know what it is," George said, with a mischievous grin.
"You say you do?" Webb was caught in the wily fellow's snare.
"Yes, you are going to get married." The boy now burst into a roar of laughter and threw himself back on the grass. "You and Sue Tidwell are going to get spliced. The whole valley's talking about it, and hoping that it will be public like an election barbecue. You with your red head and freckled face and her with her stub nose and—"
"That will do—that will do!" Webb's frown seemed to deepen the flush which, fold upon fold, came into his face. "Jokin' is all right, but it ain't fair to bring in a lady's name."
"Oh no, of course not." The boy continued to laugh through the net which he had drawn over him. "The shoe is on the other foot now."
"Well, I'm not goin' to tell you the news," Webb declared, with a touch of propitiation in his voice; and, not a little discomfited, he turned away, employing a quicker step than usually characterized his movement.
"The young scamp!" he said. "He's gittin' entirely too forward— entirely, for a boy as young as he is, and me his uncle."
Crossing a strip of meadow land, then picking his way between the rows of a patch of corn, and skirting a cotton-field, he came out into a red-clay road. Along this he walked till he reached a little meeting- house snugly ensconced among big trees at the foot of the mountain. The white frame building, oblong in shape, had four windows with green outer blinds on each of its two sides, and a door at the end nearer the road. As Webb traversed the open space, where, on Sundays, horses were hitched to the trees and saplings, a drone as of countless bees fell on his ears. To a native this needed no explanation. During five of the week-days the building was used as a schoolhouse. The sound was made by the students studying aloud, and John's niece, Dolly Drake, had sole charge of them.
Reaching the door and holding his hat in his hand, Webb cautiously peered within, beholding row after row of boys and girls whose backs were turned to him. At a blackboard on the platform, a bit of chalk in her fingers, Dolly, a girl eighteen years of age, stood explaining an example in arithmetic to several burly boys taller than herself. Webb glanced up at the sun.
"They haven't had recess yet," he reckoned. "I swear I'm sorry for them boys. I'd rather take a dozen lickin's than to stay in on a day like this an' try to git lessons in my head. I don't blame George a bit, so I don't. I can't recall a thing in the Saviour's teachin's about havin' to study figures an' geography, nohow. Looks to me like the older the world gits the further it gits from common sense."
Patiently Webb held his ground till Dolly had dismissed the class; then, turning to a table on which stood a cumbersome brass bell, she said: "I'm going to let you have recess, but you've got to go out quietly."
She had not ceased speaking, and had scarcely touched the handle of the bell, when there was a deafening clatter of books and slates on the crude benches. Feet shod and feet bare pounded the floor. Merry yells rent the air. On the platform itself two of the arithmetic delinquents were boxing playfully, fiercely punching, thrusting, and dodging. At a window three boys were bodily ejecting a fourth, the legs and feet of whom, like a human letter V, were seen disappearing over the sill.
Smilingly Webb stood aside and let the clamoring drove hurtle past to the playground outside, and when the way was clear he entered the church and stalked up the single aisle toward his niece. Dolly had turned back to the blackboard, and was sponging off the chalk figures. She was quite pretty; her eyes were large, with fathomless hazel depths. Her brow, under a mass of uncontrollable reddish-brown hair, was high and indicative of decided intellectual power. She was of medium height, very shapely, and daintily graceful. She had a good nose and a sweet, sympathetic mouth. Her hands were slender and tapering, though suggestive of strength. She wore a simple white shirtwaist and a black skirt than which nothing could have been more becoming. Hearing her uncle's step, she turned and greeted his smile with a dubious one of her own.
"Why don't you go out and play with the balance an' limber yourself up?" he asked.
"Play? I say play!" she sighed. "You men don't know any more about what a woman teacher has to contend with than a day-old kitten. My head is in a constant whirl. Sometimes I forget my own name."
"What's wrong now?" Webb smiled eagerly.
"Oh, it's everything—everything!" she sighed. "Not a thing has happened right to-day. George flatly refused to come to school—even defied me before some other boys down the road. Then my own sister—"
"What's wrong with Ann? I remember now that I didn't see her in that drove just now, and she certainly ain't at home, because I'm just from thar."
"No, she isn't at home," Dolly frowned, and, for an obvious reason, raised her voice to a high pitch, "but I'll tell you where she is, and as her own blood uncle you can share my humiliation." Therewith Dolly grimly pointed at a closet door close by. "Open it," she said. "The truth is, I told her she would have to stay there twenty minutes, and I've been bothered all through the last recitation for fear she wouldn't get enough air. All at once she got still, though she kept up a terrible racket at first."
With a grin Webb mounted the platform and opened the door of the closet. He opened it quite widely, that Dolly might look into the receptacle from where she stood. And there against the wall, seated on the floor, was Dolly's sister Ann, a slim-legged, rather pretty girl about fourteen years of age, her eyes sullenly cast down. Around her were some dismantled, ill-smelling lamps, a step-ladder, an old stove, and a bench holding a stack of hymn-books.
"She ain't quite dead," John said, dryly. "She's still breathin' below the neck, an' she's got some red in the face."
"She ought to be red from head to foot," Dolly said, for the culprit's ears. "Ann, come here!"
There was no movement on the part of the prisoner save a desultory picking of the fingers at a fold of her gingham skirt.
"Didn't you hear what Dolly—what your teacher said?" Webb asked, in an effort at severity which was far from his mood.
"Of course she heard," Dolly said, sharply. "She thinks it will mend matters for her to pout awhile. Come here, Ann."
"I want to stay here," Ann muttered; "I like it. Shut the door, Uncle John. It is cool and nice in here."
"She wants to stay." Webb's eyes danced as he conveyed the message. "She says she likes it, an' I reckon she does. Scripture says them whose deeds is evil likes darkness better'n light. You certainly made a mistake when you clapped 'er in here—that is, if you meant to punish 'er. Ann's a reg'lar bat, if not a' owl."
"Pull her out!" Dolly cried. "I've got to talk to her, and recess is almost over."
"Come out, young lady," Webb laid hold of the girl's wrist and drew the reluctant creature to her feet, half pushing, half leading her to her sister.
"I'm glad you happened in, Uncle John," Dolly said. "I want you to take a look at that face. How she got the money I don't know, but she bought a dozen sticks of licorice at the store as she passed this morning and brought them to school in her pocket. She's been gorging herself with it all day. You can see it all over her face, under her chin, behind her neck, and even in her ears. Look here at her new geography." Dolly, in high disgust, exhibited several brown smudges on an otherwise clean page.
Webb took the book with all the gravity of a most righteous, if highly amused judge. "Looks like ham gravy, don't it?" he said. "An' as I understand it, the book has to be handed on to somebody else when she gits through with it. What a pity!"
"I know you are ashamed of her, Uncle John, for I am," Dolly continued. "You see, she's my own sister."
"And my own sister's child," Webb deplored. "Of course, she ain't quite as close to me as she is to you, but she's nigh enough to make me feel plumb ashamed. I've always tuck pride in both you gals; but lawsy me, if Ann is goin' to gaum 'erself from head to foot like a pig learnin' to root, why, I reckon I'll jest hang my head in shame."
"I've lost all patience," the teacher said. "Go home, Ann, and let mother look at you. Don't come back to-day. I don't want to see you again. I've lost heart completely. I want to be proud of you and George, but I'm afraid I never can be. She can't write, Uncle John; she can't spell the simplest words in three syllables; and as for using correct grammar and pronunciation—" But Ann was stalking off without looking back.
Dolly sat down at the table and drew a sheet of paper toward her. "She's got me all upset," she sighed. "Mr. DeWitt, the new teacher, has been sending about a test example in arithmetic to see who can work it. He says he can do it, and one or two other men, but that he never has seen a woman teacher yet who could get the answer. I was within an inch of the solution when I caught sight of that girl's face, and it went from me in a flash. Uncle John, if fifteen men own in common three hundred and eighty-four bushels of wheat, and three men want to buy sixty-seven and three-fourths of—"
"Oh, Lord—thar you go!" Webb groaned. "Let me tell you some'n', Dolly. The fool feller that concocted that thing to idle time away with never hoed a row of corn or planted a potato. Do you know what that's meant for? It is for no other reason under the shinin' sun than to make the average parent think teachers know more'n the rest o' humanity. In the first place, the fifteen common men must be common shore enough if they couldn't own all told more than that amount o' wheat in this day and time when even a one-horse farmer can raise—"
"You don't understand," Dolly broke in, with an indulgent smile.
"And I don't want to, either," John declared. "It is hard enough work to sow and reap and thresh wheat in hot weather like this without sweatin' over fifteen able-bodied men that are jowerin' about a pile no bigger'n that."
Dolly glanced at the round rosewood clock on the plastered wall and reached for the bell-handle. "My time's up," she said. "I wish I could stop my ears with cotton. They always come in like a drove of iron- shod mules on a wooden bridge."
"Your pa's got a piece o' news this mornin'." Webb knew his words would stay the hand now resting on the bell.
"What is it?" Dolly inquired.
"He got a letter from Mr. Mostyn; he's comin' up to board at the house for a month."
The pretty hand dropped from the bell-handle. Dolly was staring at the speaker in surprise. She said nothing, though he was sure a flush was creeping into her cheeks.
"I sorter thought that 'ud stagger you," Webb said with a significant grin.
"Me? I don't see why." Dolly was fighting for perfect composure under trying circumstances, considering her uncle's mischievous stare.
"Well, I do, if you don't, Miss Dolly," he tittered. "You wasn't a bit older 'n Ann is when he was here last, but you was daffy about 'im the same as your ma an' all the rest o' the women. In fact, you was wuss than the balance."
"Me? I'm ashamed of you, Uncle John; I'm ashamed to hear you accuse me of—of—why, I never heard of such a thing."
"No matter, I wasn't plumb blind," Webb went on. "You kept puttin' fresh flowers in his room an' you eyed his plate like he was a pet cat to see if he was bein' fed right. La me, I'm no fool! I know a little about females, an' I never saw a mountain woman yet that wouldn't go stark crazy over a town man or a' unmarried preacher. I reckon it must be the clothes the fellers wear or the prissy stuff they chat about."
Dolly put her hand out toward the bell, but dropped it to the table. "When is he coming?" she asked, her eyes holding a tense, eager stare.
"Thursday," was the answer, accompanied by a widening grin. "I wouldn't give the children a holiday on the strength of it if I was you. Part o' these mountain folks is men an' moonshiners, an' they don't think any more about a feller that owns a bank in Atlanta 'an they do of a mossback clod-hopper with the right sort o' heart in 'im. Say, Mostyn ain't nothin' but human, an' if what some say is so he ain't the highest grade o' that. Over at Hilton's warehouse in Ridgeville t'other day I heard some cotton-buyers talkin' about men that had riz fast an' the underhanded tricks sech chaps use to hoodwink simple folks, an' they said Dick Mostyn capped the stack. Accordin' to them, he—"
"I don't believe a word of it!" Dolly stood up and angrily grasped the bell-handle. "It's not true. It's a meddlesome lie. They are jealous. People are always like that—it makes them furious to see another person prosper. They are mean, low back-biters."
"Oh, I don't say that Mostyn will actually be arrested before he gits up here," John said, dryly. "From all reports he generally has the law on his side, an'—"
But Dolly, still angry, was ringing the bell. She had turned her back to Webb; and, unable to make himself heard, he made his way down the aisle to the door.
"She's a regular spitfire when she gits 'er back up," he mused. "Now I know she likes 'im. It's been three years since she laid eyes on 'im, but she's as daffy now as she was then. It must 'a' been the feller's gallant way. I remember he used to say she was the purtiest an' brightest little trick he ever seed. Maybe he said somethin' o' the sort to her, young as she was. I remember I used to think Sis was a fool to let 'im walk about with Dolly so much, pickin' flowers an' the like. Well, if he thought she was purty an' smart then he'll be astonished now—he shore will."
As Mostyn's train ascended the grade leading up to the hamlet of Ridgeville, within a mile of which lay the little farm to which he was going, he sat at an open window and viewed the scene with delight, drawing into his lungs with a sense of restful content the crisp, rarefied air. To the west, and marking the vicinity of Drake's farm, the mountain loomed up in its blended coat of gray and green, growing more and more indistinct as the range gradually extended into the bluish haze of distance.
"I'm going to like it," he said, almost aloud, with the habit he had of talking to himself when alone. "I feel as if I shall never want to look inside a bank again. This is life, real, sensible life. I have, after all, always had a yearning for genuine simplicity. It must have come to me from my pioneer, Puritan ancestry. That man over there plowing corn with his mule and ragged harness is happier than I ever was down there in that God-forsaken turmoil. The habit of wanting to beat other men in the expert turning over of capital is as dangerous, once it clutches you, as morphine. I must call a halt. That last narrow escape shall be a lesson. I am getting normal again, and I must stay so. What are Alan Delbridge's operations to me? He has no nerves nor imagination. He could have slept through that last tangle of mine which came within an inch of laying me out stiff and stark. I wonder how all the Drakes are, especially Dolly. She must be fully grown now. Saunders says she is beautiful and as wise as Socrates. I suppose there are a dozen mountain boys after her by this time. For a little girl she was astonishingly mature in manner and thought. I ought not to have talked to her as I did. I have never forgotten her face and voice as I saw and heard them that last night. I see the wonderful eyes and mouth, the like of which I have never run across since. I am ashamed to think that I acted as I did, and she only an inexperienced child; but I really couldn't help it. I seemed to be in a dream. It was really an unpardonable thing—and proves that I do lack character—for me to tell her that I would often think of her. But the worst of all, really the most cowardly, considering her unsuspecting innocence and exaggerated faith in me, was my kissing her as I did there in the moonlight. How exquisite was her vow that she'd never kiss any other man as long as she lived! Lord, I wonder what ails me. Surely I am not silly enough to be actually—"
Mostyn's meditations were interrupted by a shrill shriek from the locomotive. Leaning out of the window, he saw the little old-fashioned brick car-shed ahead and heard the grinding of the brakes on the smooth wheels beneath the car. Grasping his bag in his hand, he made his way out and descended to the ground.
He saw the long white three-story hotel close by with its green blinds, extensive veranda, and blue-railed balustrade, the row of stores and law-offices, forming three sides of a square of which the car-shed, depot, and railway made the fourth. In the open space stood some canvas-covered mountain-wagons containing produce for shipment to the larger markets, and the usual male loungers in straw hats, baggy trousers, easy shoes, and shirts without coats.
A burly negro porter hastened down the steps of the hotel and approached swinging his slouch hat in his hand, his eyes on the traveler's bag.
"All right, boss—Purcell House, fus'-class hotel, whar all de drummers put up. Good sample-rooms an' fine country cookin'."
Mostyn held on to his bag, which the swarthy hands were grasping. "No, I'm not going to stop," he explained. "I'm going out to Drake's farm."
"Oh, is you? Well, suh, Mr. John Webb is in de freight depot. I done hear 'im say he fetched de buggy ter tek somebody out."
At this juncture the florid and flushed face of Webb was seen as he emerged from the doorway of the depot. He was bent under a weighty bag of flour, and smiled and waved his hat by way of salutation as he advanced to a buggy at a public hitching-rack and deposited his burden in the receptacle behind the single seat. This done, he came forward, brushing the sleeve of his alpaca coat and grinning jovially.
"How are you?" He extended a fat, perspiring hand luckily powdered with flour. "I reckon you won't mind riding out with me. Tom said he'd bet you'd rather walk to limber up your legs, but Lucy made me fetch the buggy along, as some said you wasn't as well as common. But you look all right to me-that is, as well as any of you city fellers ever do. The last one of you look as white as convicts out o' jail. I reckon thar is so much smoke over your town that the sun don't strike it good and straight."
"Oh, I'm all right," Mostyn said, good-naturedly, "just a little run down from overwork, that's all."
"Run down?" Webb seemed quite concerned with getting at the exact meaning of the statement, and as he took Mostyn's bag and put it in with the flour he eyed the banker attentively. "Run down?" he repeated, with his characteristic emphasis. "I don't see how a man as big an' hearty as you look an' weighin' as much could git sick or even tired without havin' any more work to do than you have. I've always meant to ask you or Mr. Saunders what you fellers do, anyway. I reckon banks are the same in big towns as in little ones. They haven't got a regular bank here in Ridgeville, but I've been to the one in Darley. I went in with Tom when he wanted to draw the cash on a cotton check. Talk about hard work—I'll swear I couldn't see it. Me 'n' Tom had been up fully three hours knockin' about the streets tryin' to kill the best part o' the day before that shebang opened up for business, an' then somebody said they shet up at three o'clock an' went home to take a nap or whiz about in their automobiles. The whole thing's bothered me a sight, for I do like to understand things. How could a checker-playin' business like that tire anybody?"
"It's head-work," Mostyn obligingly explained, as he followed John into the buggy and sat beside him. "Head-work," Webb echoed, the cloud still on his brow. He clucked to his horse and gently shook the reins. "To save me I don't see how head-work—if there is such a thing—could tire out a man's legs and arms and body."
"There is a good deal of worry attached to it," Mostyn felt impelled to say. "Nowadays they are saying that worry will kill a man quicker than any sort of physical ailment. You see, good sound sleep is necessary, and when a man is greatly bothered he simply can't sleep."
"Oh, I see, I see," Webb's blue eyes flashed. "Thar may be something in that, but it does seem like a man would have more gumption 'an to worry hisse'f to death about something that won't be of use to 'im after he dies. That's common sense, ain't it?"
Mostyn was compelled to admit the truth of the remark. They had driven out of the village square and were now in the open country.
"Thar is one more thing about town folks an' country folks that I've always wanted to know," John began again after a silence of several minutes, "and that is why town folks contend that country folks is green. As I look at it it is an even swap. Now, you are a town man, an' I'm a country feller. I could take you to the edge o' that cotton- field whar it joins on to the woods on that slope thar, an' point out a spot whar you couldn't make cotton grow more'n six inches high though it will reach four feet everywhar else in the field. Now, I'd be an impolite fool to lie down thar betwixt the rows an' split my sides laughin' at you for not knowin' what I jest got on to by years an' years o' farm life. The truth is that cotton won't take any sort o' root within twenty feet of a white-oak tree."
"I didn't know that," Mostyn said.
"I knowed you didn't, an' that's why I fetched it up," Webb went on, blandly, "an" me nor no other farmer would poke fun at you about it, but it is different in town. Jest let a spindle-legged counter-jumper at a store with his hair parted in the middle git a joke on a country feller, an' the whole town will take a hand in it. Oh, I know, for they've shore had me on the run."
"I'm surprised at that," Mostyn answered, smiling. "You seem too shrewd to be taken in by any one."
"Humph, I say!" Webb laughed reminiscently. "I supplied all the fun Darley had one hot summer day when all hands was lyin' round the stores and law-offices tryin' to git cool by fannin' and sprinklin' the sidewalks. Did you ever hear tell of the Tom Collins gag?"
"I think not," the banker answered.
"Well, I have—you bet I have," John said, dryly, "an" it is one thing that makes me afraid sometimes that a country feller railly hain't actually overloaded with brains. Take my advice; if anybody ever tells you that a feller by the name o' Tom Collins is lookin' for you an' anxious to see you about something important, just skin your eye at 'im, tell 'im right out that you don't give a dang about Tom Collins. La me, what a fool—what a fool I was! A feller workin' at the cotton- compress told me that a man by the name o' Tom Collins wanted to see me right off, an' that he was up at the wholesale grocery. Fool that I was, I hitched my hosses an' struck out lickity-split for the grocery. I axed one of the storekeepers standin' in front if Tom Collins was anywhars about, and, as I remember now, he slid his hand over his mouth an' sorter turned his face to one side and yelled back in the store:
"'Say, boys, is Tom Collins back thar?' An' right then, Mr. Mostyn, if I had had the sense of a three-year-old baby I'd have smelt a mouse, for fully six clerks, drummers, and all the firm hurried to whar I was at an' stood lookin' at me, their eyes dancin'. 'He was here, but he's just left,' a clerk said. 'He went to the hotel to git his grip. He was awfully put out. He's been all over town lookin' for you.' Well, as I made a break for the hotel, wonderin' if somebody had died an' left me a hunk o' money, the gang at the grocery stood clean out on the sidewalk watchin' me. When I inquired at the hotel, the clerk an' two nigger waiters said Tom was askin' about me an' had just run over to the court-house, whar I'd be shore to find him."
"I see the point," Mostyn laughed.
"I'm glad you do so quick, for I had to have it beat into me with a sledge-hammer," Webb said, dryly. "I was so mad I could have chawed nails, but I blamed myself more'n anybody else, for they was just havin' their fun an' meant no harm."
"I suppose not," Mostyn said.
"Well, I can't complain; they have their sport with one another. Dolph Wartrace, you know, that keeps the cross-roads store nigh us, clerked in Darley before he went in on his own hook out here, an' I've heard 'im tell of a lot o' pranks that they had over thar. He said thar was an old bachelor that, kept a dry-goods store who never had had much to do with women. He was bashful-like, but thar was one young woman that he had his eye on, an' now an' then he'd spruce up an' go to see 'er or take 'er out to meetin', but Jeff said he was too weak-kneed to pop the question, an' the gal went off on a visit to Alabama and got married. Now, the old bach' had a gang o' friends that was always in for fun, an' with long, sad faces they went about askin' everybody they met if they had heard that Bob Hadley—that was the feller's name—if they had heard that he was. dead. Bob knowed what they was sayin' an' tried to put a pleasant face on it, but it must have been hard work, considerin' all that happened.
"Well, one thing added to another till a gang of Bob's friends met the next night in a grocery store after he had gone to bed and still with sad, solemn faces declared that, considerin' his untimely end, it was their bounden duty to bury 'im in a respectable way. So they went to the furniture store close by an' borrowed a coffin an' picked out pall-bearers. A feller that slept with Bob in the little room cut off at the end o' his store was in the game, an' he had a key an' unlocked the door, an' the solemn procession marched in singin' some sad hymn or other with every man-jack of 'em wipin' his eyes an' snufflin'. Now, that was all well an' good as far as it went, but thar was a traitor in the camp. Somebody had let the dead man in on the job, an' when the gang got to the door of the little room he jumped out o' bed with a surprised sort o' grunt an' let into firin' blank-cartridges straight at 'em. Folks say that thar was some o' the tallest runnin' an' jumpin' an' hidin' under counters an' bustin' show-cases that ever tuck place out of a circus. After that night Jeff said the whole town was meetin' the gang an' tellin' 'em that thar must 'a' been some mistake about the report of Bob Hadley's death anyway."
Mostyn laughed heartily. Indeed, he was conscious of a growing sense of deep content and restfulness. The turmoil of business and city life seemed almost dreamlike in its remoteness from his present more rational existence. With the handle of his whip Webb pointed to the roof of the farmhouse, the fuzzy gray shingles of which were barely showing above the trees by which it was shaded.
"You haven't told me how the family are," Mostyn said, "I suppose the children are much larger now. Dolly, at least, must be a young lady, from what Saunders tells me of her school-work."
Webb's blue eyes swept the face of the banker with a steady scrutiny. There was a faint twinkle in their mystic depths as he replied.
"Yes, she's full grown. She's kin folks o' mine, an' it ain't for me to say, but I'd be unnatural if I wasn't proud of 'er. She's the head of that shebang, me included. What she says goes with young or old. She ain't more'n eighteen, if she's that, an' yet she furnishes brains for us an' mighty nigh all the neighborhood. You wait till you see 'er an' hear 'er talk, an' you will know what I mean."
The next morning the new boarder waked at sunrise, and stood at a window of his room on the upper floor of the farmhouse and looked out across the fields and meadows to the rugged, mist-draped mountain. The beautiful valley was flooded with the soft golden light. An indescribable luster seemed to breathe from every dew-laden stalk of cotton or corn, plant, vine, blade of grass and patch of succulent clover. Cobwebs, woven in the night and bejeweled with dewdrops, festooned the boughs of the trees in the orchard and on the lawn. From the barn-yard back of the farmhouse a chorus of sounds was rising. Pigs were grunting and squealing, cows were mooing, a donkey was braying, ducks were quacking, hens were clucking, roosters were crowing.
"Saunders is right," Mostyn declared, enthusiastically. "I don't blame the fellow for spending so much time on his plantation. This is the only genuine life. The other is insanity, crazy, competitive madness, for which there is no cure this side of the grave. I must have two natures. At this moment I feel as if I'd rather die than sweat and stew over investments and speculations in a bank as I have been doing, and yet I may be sure that the thing will clutch me again. One word of Delbridge's lucky manipulations or old Mitchell's praise, and the fever would burn to my bones. But I mustn't think of them if I am to benefit by this. I must fill myself with this primitive simplicity and dream once more the glorious fancies of boyhood."
Finishing dressing, he descended the stairs to the hall below and passed through the open door to the veranda. No one was in sight, but from the kitchen in the rear he heard the clatter of utensils and dishes, and smelt the aroma of boiling coffee and frying ham. Already his appetite was sharpened as if by the mountain air. He decided on taking a walk, and, stepping down to the grass, he turned round the house, coming face to face upon Dolly, whom he had not yet seen, as she came from a side door.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, flushing prettily. "I did not think you would rise so early—at least, not on your first morning."
He eyed her almost in bewilderment as he took the hand she was cordially extending. Could this full-blown rose of young womanhood, this startling beauty, be the slip of a timid girl he had so lightly treated three years ago? What hair, what eyes, what palpitating, sinuous grace! She was fast recovering calmness. There was a womanly dignity about her which seemed incongruous in one so young.
"I am rather surprised at myself for waking so early," he answered. "I slept like a log. It is the first real rest I have had since—since I was here before. Why, Dolly"—he caught himself up—"I suppose I must say Miss Drake now—"
"No, I am not that to any one in all this valley, and don't want to be!" she cried, the corners of her mouth curving bewitchingly. "Even the little children call me 'Dolly,' and I like it."
"I mustn't stop you if you are going somewhere," he said, still in the grasp of her wondrous beauty.
"I'm going down to Tobe Barnett's cabin in the edge of our field." She showed a small vial half filled with medicine in the pocket of her white apron. "His baby, little Robby, was taken sick a few days ago. I sat up there part of last night. They have no paragoric and I am taking some over."
"So that's where you were; I wondered when I didn't see you at supper," Mostyn said, turning with her toward the gate. "I'll go with you if you don't mind."
"Oh yes, come on," Dolly answered. "We'll have plenty of time before the breakfast-bell rings. It is not far. I am awfully sorry for Tobe and his wife; they are both young and inexperienced."
"And you are a regular grandmother in wisdom," Mostyn jested. "Only eighteen, with the world on your shoulders."
"Well, I do seem to know a few things, a few ordinary things," Dolly said, seriously, "but they are not matters to boast about. For instance, Tobe and Annie—that's his wife—were so scared and excited when I got there last night that they were actually harming the poor little baby, and I set about to calm them the very first thing. I can't begin to tell you how they went on. Think of it, they had actually given up and were crying—both of them—and there lay the little mite fairly gasping for breath. I made Tobe go after some wood for the fire, and put Annie at work helping me. Then I forced them to be still until the baby got quiet and fell asleep."
"You'd make a capital nurse." Mostyn was regarding her admiringly. "It would be a pleasure to be sick in your hands."
Dolly ignored his compliment. She was thinking of something alien to his mood and deeper. "Do you know," she said, after she had passed through the gate which he had held open, "the world is all out of joint."
"Do you think so?" he asked, as he walked beside her, suiting his step to hers.
"Yes, for if it were right," she sighed, her brows meeting thoughtfully, "such well-meaning persons as the Barnetts would not have to live as they do and bring helpless children into the world."
"Things do seem rather uneven," Mostyn admitted, lamely, "but you know really that we ought to have a law that would keep such couples from marrying."
"Poof!" She blew his argument away with a fine sniff of denial, and her eyes shot forth fresh gleams of conviction. "How absurd to talk about a human law to keep persons from doing God's infinite will. God intends for persons to love each other. Love is the one divine thing that we can be absolutely sure of. Annie and Tobe can't help themselves. They are out in a storm. It is beating them on all sides— pounding, driving, dragging, and grinding them. They love each other with a love that is celestial, a love that is of the spirit rather than of their poor ill-fed, ill-clothed bodies."
Mostyn's wonder over the girl's depth and facility of expression clutched him so firmly that he found himself unable to formulate a fitting reply.
"Oh yes, their love is absolutely genuine," Dolly ran on, loyally. "Tobe could have married the daughter of a well-to-do farmer over the mountain whom he had visited several times before he met his wife. The farmer was willing, I have heard, to give them land to live on, and it might have been a match, but Tobe accidentally met Annie. She was a poor girl working in the Ridgeville cotton factory at two or three dollars a week, which she was giving to her people. She had only two dresses, the tattered bag of a thing she worked in and another which she kept for Sundays. Tobe met her and talked to her one day while he was hauling cotton to the factory, and something in her poor wretched face attracted him, or maybe it was her sweet voice, for it is as mellow as music. She wasn't well—had a cough at the time—and he had read something in a paper about the lint of a factory causing consumption, and it worried him; people say he couldn't keep from talking about it. She was on his mind constantly. He was still going to see the other girl, but he acted so oddly that she became angry with him and, to spite him, began to go with another young man. But Tobe didn't seem to care. He kept going to the factory and—well, the upshot of it was that he married Annie."
"And then the real trouble began," Mostyn said, smiling lightly.
"And actually through no fault of their own," Dolly declared. "He rented land, bought some supplies on credit, and went to work to make a crop. You ask father or Uncle John; they will tell you that Tobe Barnett was the hardest worker in this valley. But ill luck clung to him like a leach. The drouth killed his first crop, and the winter caught him in debt. Then Annie got sick—she had exposed herself to the bad weather milking a cow for a neighbor to earn a little money. Then no sooner was she up when a wagon ran over Tobe and hurt his foot so that he could hardly get about. Then the baby came, and their load of trouble was heavier than ever."
"A case of true love, without doubt," Mostyn said.
"And the prettiest thing on earth," Dolly declared. "Sometimes it seems to make their poor shack of a place fairly glow with heavenly light."
"You are a marvel to me, Dolly—you really are!" Mostyn paused, and she turned to him, a groping look of surprise on her face.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Why, you have such an original way of speaking," he said, somewhat abashed by her sudden demand. "I mean—that—that what you say sounds different from what one would naturally expect. Not ordinary, not commonplace; I hardly know how to express it. Really, you are quite poetic."
He saw her face fall. "I am sorry about that," she faltered. "I have been told the same thing before, and I don't like to be that way. I am afraid I read too much poetry. It fairly sings in my head when I feel deeply, as I do about Tobe and Annie, for instance, or when I have to make a speech."
"Make a speech? You?" Mostyn stared.
"Oh yes, these people expect all that sort of thing from a teacher, and it was very hard for me to do at first, but I don't mind it now. One is obliged to open school with prayer, too, and it mustn't be worded the same way each time or the mischievous children will learn it by heart and quote it. The most of my speeches are made in our debating society."
"Oh, I see; you have a debating society!" Mostyn exclaimed.
"Yes, and as it happens I am the only woman member," Dolly proceeded to enlighten him. "The men teachers in the valley got it up to meet at my school twice a month, and the patrons took a big interest in it and began to make insinuations that my school ought to be represented. They talked so much about it that I was afraid some man would get my job, so one day when Warren Wilks, the teacher in Ridgeville, asked me to join I did."
"How strange!" Mostyn said, admiringly, "and you really do take part."
Dolly laughed softly. "You'd think so if you ever attended one of our public harangues. I've heard persons say I was the whole show. Of course, I'm joking now, but the women all take up for me and applaud everything I say, whether it has a point to it or not. 'Whole show!' I oughtn't to have said that. When I try to keep from using bookish expressions I drop plumb into slang; there is no middle ground for me."
"What sort of subjects does your society take up?" Mostyn inquired, highly amused.
"Anything the human mind can think up," Dolly answered. "Warren Wilks reads all the philosophical and scientific magazines, and he fairly floors us—there I go again; when I talk I either grab the stars or stick my nose in the mire. I mean that Warren's subjects are generally abstruse and profound."
"For instance?" Mostyn suggested, still smiling.
"Well, the last one was—and there was a crowd, I tell you, for the presiding elder had just closed a revival in our church and a good many stayed over for the debate. We all tried to show off because he was present, and it was a religious subject. It was this: Is it possible for human beings in the present day to obey the commandment of Jesus to love your neighbor as yourself?"
"And which side were you on?" the banker asked.
"I was affirmative, and almost by myself, too," Dolly answered. I oughtn't to say that either; it sounds like bragging, for there were two men on my side, but I saw at the start that I couldn't depend on them. They were weak-kneed—afraid of our premise. They didn't believe Jesus meant it, anyway. I did the best I could. I not only think He meant it, but I am sure the day will come when the whole world will live up to the rule. Christ wouldn't be for all time, as He is, if His best ideas were acceptable to such a grossly material age as ours. Neither side won in that debate—the judges couldn't agree. I wish you had been here last month. We had up a subject that you could have helped me on. The question was: Which is the better place to rear a man, the city or the country? Or, in other words, can the mind of man develop in a busy, crowded place as well as in a quiet spot in the country? I was on the side of the rural districts that night, and we won. We had no trouble showing that the majority of great characters in all lines of endeavor had come from rural spots. I think it is the same to-day. I know I wouldn't live in a big town. City people are occupied with automobiles, golf, dances, card parties, and gossip—of course, I don't mean anything personal, you understand, but it is a fact that they are that way. And it is a fact, too, that here our crowd, at least, will get a good book and actually wear it to tatters passing it around. That is the sort of education that sticks when it once gets hold of a person."
"I am sure you are right," Mostyn admitted, and he felt the blood rise to his face as he thought of the emptiness of his own life in Atlanta, which now, somehow, seemed like a vanishing dream. The morning sun was blazing over the verdant landscape, filling the dewdrops on the grass with red, blue, and yellow light. An indescribable aura seemed to encircle the exquisite face of his young companion. There was a restful poise about her, a sure grasp of utterance, that soothed and thrilled him. Something new and vivifying sprang to life in his breast. The thought flashed into his consciousness that here with this embodiment of intellectual purity he could master the cloying vices of his life. He could put them behind him—turn over a new leaf, be a new man in body and spirit. Perhaps he could kill the temptation to gain by sordid business methods; perhaps he could subdue the reluctant intention to marry for ulterior motives regardless of the magnitude of the temptation. It really was not too late. He couldn't remember having said anything to Mitchell or his daughter which would bind him in any absolute sense. Yes, the ideal was the thing. Providence had rescued him from his recent financial danger, and meant this encounter as a chance for redemption. He could make some sort of compromise with old Jefferson Henderson—a reasonable sum of money to one so hard pressed for funds would not only silence the too active tongue, but win his gratitude and the approval of all business men. Then there was the other thing—the thing he scarcely dared think of in the presence of this pure young girl—the disagreeable case of Marie—but there was no use reflecting over what could not be helped. A man ought to be pardoned for mistakes due to uncontrollable natural passion. The woman is generally as much to blame as her companion in indiscretion, especially one of the sort to whom his mind now reverted. She had shown her lack of character, if not her prime motive, by accepting and using the money he had offered her. She had been troublesome, and more so of late than before, but she might be persuaded to let him alone. His conscience was clear, for he had made no promises to her. He remembered distinctly that he had made no effort actually to win her affections. How different was this pure mountain flower from such a soiled and degraded creature!
"There," Dolly was speaking again, and the soft cadences of her voice put his shameful memories to flight as she pointed to an opening between the trees of the wood on the right, "you can see your partner's house from here. He has had it repainted. It is a beautiful old place, isn't it?"
He nodded as he surveyed the stately mansion in the distance, the white porch columns of which shone like snow in the slanting rays of the sun. "It is Saunders's pride," he said. "Atlanta is becoming more and more distasteful to him. He is never really happy anywhere but up here. He yawns his head off at every party, dance, or dinner down there. They all laugh at him and call him 'Farmer.'"
"Well, he is that," Dolly declared. "He works in the fields like a day-laborer when he is up here on a holiday."
They walked on a few paces in silence; then Dolly said: "Mr. Saunders has been very kind to our club; he gave us a lot of good books; he comes to our debates sometimes and seems very much interested. We all like him. The boys declare they could elect him to the legislature from this county if only he would let them, but he doesn't care a fig for it."
"He is something of a dreamer, I think," Mostyn remarked, "and still he's practical. He has a long head on him—never gets excited and seldom makes a wrong move in a deal."
They were now nearing the cabin occupied by Tobe Barnett. It was a most dilapidated shack. It was made of pine logs, the bark of which had become worm-eaten and was falling away. The spaces between the logs were filled with dried clay. It had a mud-and-stick chimney, from the cracks of which the smoke oozed. It contained only one room, was roofed with crudely split boards of oak, and was without a window of any sort. Outside against the wall on the right of the shutterless door was a shelf holding a battered tin water pail and a gourd.
Within, as the visitors approached nearer, was heard the grinding of feet on the rough planks of the floor and the faint, tremulous cry of a child. A lank young man appeared at the door. He wore a ragged, earth-stained shirt and patched pants. His yellowish hair was tousled, a scant tuft of beard was on his sharp chin, and whiskers of a week's standing mottled his hollow cheeks. His blue eyes peered out despondently from their shadowy sockets.
"How is Robby now, Tobe?" Dolly asked.
The man stepped down to the ground, and in his tattered, gaping shoes slowly shambled forward.
"I can't see no change, Miss Dolly," he gulped. "He seems to me as sick as ever. If anything, he don't git his breath as free as he did. Annie's mighty nigh distracted. I don't know which way to turn or what to do when she gives up."
"I know it—poor thing!" Dolly answered. She turned to Mostyn. "Wait here. I'll be out before long."
Followed by the anxious father, she went into the cabin. Mostyn sat down at the root of a big beech tree and glanced over the peaceful landscape. How wonderful the scene! he thought. The top of the mountain was lost in the lifting mist along its base and sides. The level growing fields stretched away to the north in a blaze of warming yellow. A boy was leading a harnessed horse along the road; behind him lagged a dog to which the boy was cheerfully whistling and calling. A covey of quails rose from a patch of blackberry vines and fluttered away toward the nearest hillside.
Yes, he was going to turn over a new leaf. Mostyn was quite sure of this. He would take Saunders for his model instead of that crack- brained Delbridge who had the hide of an ox and no refinement of feeling. Yes, yes, and forget—above all, he would forget; that was the thing.
At this moment he saw Dolly crossing the room with the child in her arms. It was only for an instant, and yet he noted the unspeakable tenderness which pervaded her attitude and movement. He was reminded of a picture of a Madonna he had seen in a gallery in New York. The crying of the child had ceased; there was scarcely any sound in the cabin, for Dolly's tread was as light as falling snow.
From the doorway came Tobe Barnett. He approached Mostyn in a most dejected mien.
"This is Mr. Mostyn, ain't it?" he asked. "I heard Tom Drake say they was expectin' you up."
The banker nodded. "How do you think the baby is now?" he asked, considerately.
"Only the Lord could answer that, sir," the man sighed. "I believe it would have died in the night if Miss Dolly hadn't got out o' bed an' come over."
"I was half awake," Mostyn said. "I thought I heard some one calling out at the gate." It was about two o'clock, I think." "That was the fust time, sir. "The second time was just before daybreak. I didn't go for her that time. She come of her own accord—said she jest couldn't git back to sleep. She loves children, Mr. Mostyn, an' she seems to think as much o' Robby as if he was her own. I ketched 'er cryin' last night when she was settin' waitin' in the dark for 'im to git to sleep. La, la, folks brag powerful on Miss Dolly, but they don't know half o' the good she does on the quiet. She tries to keep 'em from findin' out what she does. I know I'm grateful to 'er. If the Lord don't give me a chance to repay 'er for her kindness to me an' mine I'll never be satisfied." The speaker's voice had grown husky, and he now choked up. Silence fell. It was broken by a sweet voice in the cabin humming an old plantation lullaby. There was a thumping of a rockerless chair on the floor. Presently the mother of the child came out. She blinked from the staring blue eyes which she timidly raised to Mostyn's face. Her dress was a poor drab rag of a thing which hung limply over her thin form. Her hair was tawny and drawn into a tight, unbecoming knot at the back of her head. No collar of any sort hid her sun-browned, bony neck.
"Miss Dolly said please not wait for her," she faltered. "Breakfast at the house will be over. She's done give the child the medicine an' wants to put it to sleep. It will sleep for her, but won't for me or Tobe. We have sent for a doctor, but we don't know whether he will come or not. Doctors can't afford to bother with real pore folks as much out o' the way as this is."
"He won't be likely to come," Barnett sighed. "They are all out for cases whar they kin git ready cash an' plenty of it."
Mostyn turned away. What a wonderful girl Dolly was, he said to himself, as he strode along, his heart beating with strange new elation. He was sure she still liked him. She showed it in her eyes, in her tone of voice. She had not forgotten his last talk with her; she was so young, so impressionable, and, withal, so genuine!
At the front gate he saw John Webb waiting for him. "You'd better hurry," Webb smiled, as he swung the gate open. "The bell's done rung. I seed you an' Dolly walkin' off, an' I was afeared you'd git cold grub. As for her, she don't care when she eats or what is set before her."
It was the following Tuesday. Dolly, with a bundle of books and written exercises under her arm, was returning from school. Close behind her walked George and Ann.
"I'm ashamed of you both," Dolly said, with a frown. "We've got company, and you are both as black as the pot. If I were you I'd certainly stop at the branch and wash the dirt off before getting home."
"That's a good idea," George laughed. "Come on, Sis!" He caught the struggling Ann by the arm and began to drag her toward the stream. "I'll give you a good ducking. Dol' said I could."
Leaving them quarreling, and even exchanging mild blows, Dolly walked on. "They are beyond me—beyond anybody except an army of soldiers with guns pointed," she said. "I don't know what Mr. Mostyn thinks of us, I'm sure. People don't live that way in Atlanta—that is, nice people don't; but he really doesn't seem to care much. He doesn't seem to notice the mistakes father and mother make, and he lets Uncle John talk by the hour about any trivial thing. I wonder if he really, really likes me—as—as much as he seems to. It has been three years since he first hinted at it, and, oh, my! I must have been as gawky and silly as Ann. Still, you never can tell; the heart must have a lot to do with it. I wasn't thinking of looks, or clothes, or the rich man they all said he was, and I guess he wasn't thinking of anything but—" She checked herself; the blood had mounted to her face, and she felt it wildly throbbing in the veins. "Anyway, he seems to like to be with me now even more than he did then. He listens to all I say— doesn't miss a word, and looks at me as if—as if—" Again she checked herself; her plump breast rose high, and a tremulous sigh escaped her lips. "Well," she finished, as she opened the gate and saw her mother in the doorway, "people may say what they like, but I don't believe anybody can love but once in life, either man or woman. God means it that way just as He doesn't let the same sweet flower bloom twice on the same stem."
Mrs. Drake had advanced to the edge of the porch. "Hurry up," she said, eagerly. "Miss Stella Munson is in my room waiting for you. She come at two o'clock and has been here ever since."
"What does she want?" Dolly asked, putting her books down on the upper step of the porch.
"I don't want to tell you till you see it," Mrs. Drake said, smiling mysteriously; "it is by all odds the prettiest thing you ever laid eyes on, an' she says she is willin' to let it go for the bare cost of the material. She is in a sort o' tight for cash."
"A hat?" Dolly inquired, eagerly.
"Something you need worse than a hat," the mother smiled. "It is a dress—an organdie, a regular beauty. She made it for Mary Cobb, and you know Mary always orders the best, but, the poor girl's mother bein' dead, the dress come back on Miss Stella's hands. She could force Mary to stick to her agreement, but she hates to do it when the girl has to put on black and is in so much trouble. Even as it is, you wouldn't have had the chance at it, but you and Mary are exactly of a size, an' there'll be no alterations to make."
"Oh, I want to see it!" Dolly sprang lightly up the steps and hurried into her mother's room on the right of the hall, where a tall, angular, middle-aged spinster sat with her stained and needle-pricked fingers linked in her lap.
"How are you, Miss Stella?" she cried, kissing the thin cheek cordially. "I've already heard about that dress. Winnie Mayfield helped Mary pick out the cloth and trimmings, and she said you would make it the sweetest thing in the valley. Pink is my color. Where is— oh!" She had descried it as it lay on the bed, and with hands clasped in delight, she sprang toward it. "Oh, it is a dream—a dream, Miss Stella! You are an artist."
She picked the flimsy garment up and held it at arm's length. Then she hung it on one of the tall bed-posts and stood back to admire it, uttering little ejaculations of delight. "I know it will fit. I wore one of Mary's dresses to a party one night, and it was exactly right in every way. Oh, oh, what a beauty! You are a wonder. You could get rich in a city." "I think Miss Stella is trying to advertise her work," Mrs. Drake jested. "She knows Mr. Mostyn will see it, and he'd have to talk about it. Town men are close observers of what girls put on—more so, by a long shot, than country men. I wouldn't be surprised if some rich person wrote to you to come down to Atlanta, Miss Stella."
Dolly was dancing about the room like a happy child, now placing herself in one position, then another, in order to view the dress from every possible point of vantage. She even went out into the hall and sauntered back as if to surprise herself by a sudden sight of the treasure.