THE RISE OF ROSCOE PAINE
By Joseph C. Lincoln
"I'm going up to the village," I told Dorinda, taking my cap from the hook behind the dining-room door.
"What for?" asked Dorinda, pushing me to one side and reaching for the dust-cloth, which also was behind the door.
"Oh, just for the walk," I answered, carelessly.
"Um-hm," observed Dorinda.
"Um-hm" is, I believe, good Scotch for "Yes." I have read that it is, somewhere—in one of Barrie's yarns, I think. I had never been in Scotland, or much of anywhere else, except the city I was born in, and my college town, and Boston—and Cape Cod. "Um-hm" meant yes on the Cape, too, except when Dorinda said it; then it might mean almost anything. When Mother asked her to lower the window shade in the bed-room she said "Um-hm" and lowered it. And, five minutes later, when Lute came in, loaded to the guards with explanations as to why he had forgotten to clean the fish for dinner, she said it again. And the Equator and the North Pole are no nearer alike, so far as temperature is concerned, than those two "Um-hms." And between them she had others, expressing all degrees from frigid to semi-torrid.
Her "Um-hm" this time was somewhere along the northern edge of Labrador.
"It's a good morning for a walk," I said.
"Um-hm," repeated Dorinda, crossing over to Greenland, so to speak.
I opened the outside door. The warm spring sunshine, pouring in, was a pleasant contrast and made me forget, for the moment, the glacier at my back. Come to think of it, "glacier" isn't a good word; glaciers move slowly and that wasn't Dorinda's way.
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
"Work," snapped Dorinda, unfurling the dust cloth. "It's a good mornin' for that, too."
I went out, turned the corner of the house and found Lute sound asleep on the wash bench behind the kitchen. His full name was Luther Millard Filmore Rogers, and he was Dorinda's husband by law, and the burden which Providence, or hard luck, had ordered her to carry through this vale of tears. She was a good Methodist and there was no doubt in her mind that Providence was responsible. When she rose to testify in prayer-meeting she always mentioned her "cross" and everybody knew that the cross was Luther. She carried him, but it is no more than fair to say that she didn't provide him with cushions. She never let him forget that he was a steerage passenger. However, Lute was well upholstered with philosophy, of a kind, and, so long as he didn't have to work his passage, was happy, even if the voyage was a rather rough one.
Just now he was supposed to be raking the back yard, but the rake was between his knees, his head was tipped back against the shingled wall of the kitchen, and he was sleeping, with the sunshine illuminating his open mouth, "for all the world like a lamp in a potato cellar," as his wife had said the last time she caught him in this position. She went on to say that it was a pity he wouldn't stand on his head when he slept. "Then I could see if your skull was as holler as I believe it is," she told him.
Lute heard me as I passed him and woke up. The "potato cellar" closed with a snap and he seized the rake handles with both hands.
"I was takin' a sort of observation," he explained hurriedly. "Figgerin' whether I'd better begin here or over by the barn. Oh, it's you, Roscoe, is it! Land sakes! I thought first 'twas Dorindy. Where you bound?"
"Up to the village," I said.
"Ain't goin' to the post-office, be you?"
"I may; I don't know."
Lute sighed. "I was kind of cal'latin' to go there myself," he observed, regretfully. "Thoph Newcomb and Cap'n Jed Dean and the rest of us was havin' a talk on politics last night up there and 'twas mighty interestin'. Old Dean had Thoph pretty well out of the race when I hauled alongside, but when I got into the argument 'twas different. 'What's goin' to become of the laborin' men of this country if you have free trade?' I says. Dean had to give in that he didn't know. 'Might have to let their wives support 'em,' he says, pompous as ever. 'That would be a calamity, wouldn't it, Lute?' That wasn't no answer, of course. But you can't expect sense of a Democrat. I left him fumin' and come away. I've thought of a lot more questions to ask him since and I was hopin' I could get at him this mornin'. But no! Dorindy's sot on havin' this yard raked, so I s'pose I've got to do it."
He had dropped the rake, but now he leaned over, picked it up, and rose from the wash bench.
"I s'pose I've got to do it," he repeated, "unless," hopefully, "you want me to run up to the village and do your errand for you."
"No; I hadn't any errand."
"Well, then I s'pose I'd better start in. Unless there was somethin' else you'd ruther I'd do to-day. If there was I could do this to-morrer."
"To-morrow would have one advantage: there would be more to rake then. However, judging by Dorinda's temper this morning, I think, perhaps, you had better do it to-day."
"What's Dorindy doin'?"
"She is dusting the dining-room."
"I'll bet you! And she dusted it yesterday and the day afore. Do you know—" Lute sat down again on the bench—"sometimes I get real worried about her."
"No! Do you?"
"Yes, I do. I think she works too hard. Seems's if sometimes it had kind of struck to her brains—work, I mean. She don't think of nothin' else. Now take the dustin', for instance. Dustin's all right; I believe in dustin' things. But I don't believe in wearin' 'em out dustin' 'em. That ain't sense, is it?"
"It doesn't seem like it, that's a fact."
"You bet it don't! And it ain't good religion, neither. Now take—well, take this yard, for instance. What is it that I'm slavin' myself over this fine mornin'? Why, rakin' this yard! And what am I rakin'? Why, dead leaves from last fall, and straws and sticks and pieces of seaweed and such that have blowed in durin' the winter. And what blowed 'em in? Why, the wind, sartin! And whose wind was it? The Almighty's, that's whose! Now then! if the Almighty didn't intend to have dead leaves around why did he put trees for 'em to fall off of? If he didn't want straws and seaweed and truck around why did He send them everlastin' no'theasters last November? Did that idea ever strike you?"
"I don't know that it ever did, exactly in that way."
"No. Well, that's 'cause you ain't reasoned it out, same as I have. You've got the same trouble that most folks have, you don't reason things out. Now, let's look at it straight in the face." Lute let go of the rake altogether and used both hands to illustrate his point. "That finger there, we'll say, is me, rakin' and rakin' hard as ever I can. And that fist there is the Almighty, not meanin' anything irreverent. I rake, same as I'm doin' this mornin'. The yard's all cleaned up. Then—zing!" Lute's clenched fist swept across and knocked the offending finger out of the way. "Zing! here comes one of the Almighty's no'theasters, same as we're likely to have to-morrer, and the consarned yard is just as dirty as ever. Ain't that so?"
I looked at the yard. "It seems to be about as it was," I agreed, with some sarcasm. Lute was an immune, so far as sarcasm was concerned.
"Yup," he said, triumphantly. "Now, Dorindy, she's a good, pious woman. She believes the Powers above order everything. If that's so, then ain't it sacrilegious to be all the time flyin' in the face of them Powers by rakin' and rakin' and dustin' and dustin'? That's the question."
"But, according to that reasoning," I observed, "we should neither rake nor dust. Wouldn't that make our surroundings rather uncomfortable, after a while?"
"Sartin. But when they got uncomfortable then we could turn to and make 'em comfortable again. I ain't arguin' against work—needful work, you understand. I like it. And I ain't thinkin' of myself, you know, but about Dorindy. It worries me to see her wearin' herself out with—with dustin' and such. It ain't sense and 'tain't good religion. She's my wife and it's my duty to think for her and look out for her."
He paused and reached into his overalls pocket for a pipe. Finding it, he reached into another pocket for the wherewithal to fill it.
"Have you suggested to her that she's flying in the face of Providence?" I asked.
Lute shook his head. "No," he admitted, "I ain't. Got any tobacco about you? Dorindy hove my plug away yesterday. I left it back of the clock and she found it and was mad—dustin' again, of course."
He took the pouch I handed him, filled his pipe and absently put the pouch in his pocket.
"Got a match?" he asked. "Thanks. No, I ain't spoke to her about it, though it's been on my mind for a long spell. I didn't know but you might say somethin' to her along that line, Roscoe. 'Twouldn't sound so personal, comin' from you. What do you think?"
I shook my head. "Dorinda wouldn't pay much attention to my ideas on such subjects, I'm afraid," I answered. "She knows I'm not a regular church-goer."
Lute was plainly disappointed. "Well," he said, with a sigh, "maybe you're right. She does cal'late you're kind of heathen, though she hopes you'll see the light some day. But, just the same," he added, "it's a good argument. I tried it on the gang up to the post-office last night. I says to 'em, says I, 'Work's all right. I believe in it. I'm a workin' man, myself. But to work when you don't have to is wrong. Take Ros Paine,' I says—"
"Why should you take me?" I interrupted, rather sharply.
"'Cause you're the best example I could think of. Everybody knows you don't do no work. Shootin' and sailin' and fishin' ain't work, and that's about all you do. 'Take Ros,' says I. 'He might be to work. He was in a bank up to the city once and he knows the bankin' trade. He might be at it now, but what would be the use?' I says. 'He's got enough to live on and he lives on it, 'stead of keepin' some poor feller out of a job.' That's right, too, ain't it?"
I didn't answer at once. There was no reason why I should be irritated because Luther Rogers had held me up as a shining example of the do-nothing class to the crowd of hangers-on in a country post-office. What did I care for Denboro opinion? Six years in that gossipy village had made me, so I thought, capable of rising above such things.
"Well," I asked after a moment, "what did they say to that?"
"Oh, nothin' much. They couldn't; I had 'em, you see. Some of 'em laughed and old Cap'n Jed he hove out somethin' about birds of a feather stickin' up for each other. No sense to it. But, as I said afore, what can you expect of a Democrat?"
I turned on my heel and moved toward the back gate. "Ain't goin', be you?" asked Lute. "Hadn't you better set down and rest your breakfast a spell?"
"No, I'm going. By the way, if you're through with that tobacco pouch of mine, I'll take it off your hands. I may want to smoke by and by."
Lute coolly explained that he had forgotten the pouch; it had "gone clean out of his head." However, he handed it over and I left him seated on the wash bench, with his head tipped back against the shingles. I opened the gate and strolled slowly along the path by the edge of the bluff. I had gone perhaps a hundred yards when I heard a shrill voice behind me. Turning, I saw Dorinda standing by the corner of the kitchen, dust cloth in hand. Her husband was raking for dear life.
I walked on. The morning was a beautiful one. Beside the path, on the landward side, the bayberry and beach-plum bushes were in bud, the green of the new grass was showing above the dead brown of the old, a bluebird was swaying on the stump of a wild cherry tree, and the pines and scrub oaks of the grove by the Shore Lane were bright, vivid splashes of color against the blue of the sky. At my right hand the yellow sand of the bluff broke sharply down to the white beach and the waters of the bay, now beginning to ebb. Across the bay the lighthouse at Crow Point glistened with new paint and I could see a moving black speck, which I knew was Ben Small, the keeper, busy whitewashing the fence beside it. Down on the beach Zeb Kendrick was overhauling his dory. In the distance, beyond the grove, I could hear the carpenters' hammers on the roof of the big Atwater mansion, which was now the property of James Colton, the New York millionaire, whose rumored coming to Denboro to live had filled the columns of the country weekly for three months. The quahaug boats were anchored just inside the Point; a clam digger was wading along the outer edge of the sedge; a lobsterman was hauling his pots in the channel; even the bluebird on the wild cherry stump had a straw in his beak and was plainly in the midst of nest building. Everyone had something to do and was doing it—everyone except Lute Rogers and myself, the "birds of a feather." And even Lute was working now, under compulsion.
Ordinarily the sight of all this industry would not have affected me. I had seen it all before, or something like it. The six years I had spent in Denboro, the six everlasting, idle, monotonous years, had had their effect. I had grown hardened and had come to accept my fate, at first rebelliously, then with more of Lute's peculiar kind of philosophy. Circumstances had doomed me to be a good-for-nothing, a gentleman loafer without the usual excuse—money—and, as it was my doom, I forced myself to accept it, if not with pleasure, at least with resignation. And I determined to get whatever pleasure there might be in it. So, when I saw the majority of the human race, each with a purpose in life, struggling to attain that purpose, I passed them by with my gun or fishing rod on my shoulder, and a smile on my lips. If my remnant of a conscience presumed to rise and reprove me, I stamped it down. It had no reasonable excuse for rising; I wasn't what I was from choice.
But, somehow, on this particular morning, my unreasonable conscience was again alive and kicking. Perhaps it was the quickening influence of the spring which resurrected it; perhaps Luther's quotation from the remarks of Captain Jedediah Dean had stirred it to rebellion. A man may know, in his heart, that he is no good and still resent having others say that he is, particularly when they say that he and Luther Rogers are birds of a feather. I didn't care for Dean's good opinion; of course I didn't! Nor for that of any one else in Denboro, my mother excepted. But Dean and the rest should keep their opinions to themselves, confound them!
The path from our house—the latter every Denboro native spoke of as the "Paine Place"—wound along the edge of the bluff for perhaps three hundred yards, then turned sharply through the grove of scrub oaks and pitch pines and emerged on the Shore Lane. The Shore Lane was not a public road, in the strictest sense of the term. It was really a part of my land and, leading, as it did, from the Lower Road to the beach, was used as a public road merely because mother and I permitted it to be. It had been so used, by sufferance of the former owner, for years, and when we came into possession of the property we did not interfere with the custom. Land along the shore was worth precious little at that time and, besides, it was pleasant, rather than disagreeable, to hear the fish carts going out to the weirs, and the wagons coming to the beach for seaweed, or, filled with picnic parties, rattling down the Lane. We could not see them from the house until they had passed the grove and emerged upon the beach, but even the noise of them was welcome. The Paine Place was a good half-mile from the Lower Road and there were few neighbors; therefore, especially in the winter months, any sounds of society were comforting.
I strode through the grove, kicking the dead branches out of my way, for my mind was still busy with Luther and Captain Dean. As I came out into the Lane I looked across at the Atwater mansion, now the property of the great and only Colton, "Big Jim" Colton, whose deals and corners in Wall Street supplied so many and such varied sensations for the financial pages of the city papers, just as those of his wife and family supplied news for the society columns; I looked across, I say, and then I stopped short to take a longer look.
I could see the carpenters, whose hammers I had heard, at work upon the roof of the barn, now destined to do double duty as a stable and garage. They, and the painters and plumbers, had been busy on the premises for months. The establishment had been a big one, even when Major Atwater owned it, but the new owners had torn down and added and rebuilt until the house loomed up like a palace or a Newport villa. A Newport villa in Denboro! Why on earth any one should deliberately choose Denboro as a place to live in I couldn't understand; but why a millionaire, with all creation to select from, should build a Newport villa on the bluff overlooking Denboro Bay was beyond comprehension. The reason given in the Cape Cod Item was that Mrs. Colton was "in debilitated health," whatever that is, and had been commanded by her doctors to seek sea air and seclusion and rest. Well, there was sea air and rest, not to mention seclusion or sand and mosquitoes, for a square mile about the new villa, and no one knew that better than I, condemned to live within the square. But if Mrs. Colton had deliberately chosen the spot, with malice aforethought, the place for her was a home for the feeble minded. At least, that was my opinion on that particular morning.
It was not the carpenters who caused me to pause in my walk and look across the lane and over the stone wall at my new neighbor's residence. What caught my attention was that the place looked to be inhabited. The windows were open—fifty or so of them—smoke was issuing from one of the six chimneys; a maid in a white cap and apron was standing by the servants' entrance. Yes, and a tall, bulky man with a yachting cap on the back of his head and a cigar in his mouth was talking with Asa Peters, the boss carpenter, by the big door of the barn.
I had not been up to the village for two days, having been employed at our boat-house on the beach below the house, getting my motor dory into commission for the summer. But now I remembered that Lute had said something about the Coltons being expected, or having arrived, and that he seemed much excited over it. He would have said more, but Dorinda had pounced on him and sent him out to shut up the chickens, which gave him the excuse to play truant and take his evening's trip to the post-office. It was plain that the Coltons HAD arrived. Very likely the stout man with the yachting cap was the mighty "Big Jim" himself. Well, I didn't envy him in his present situation. He had my pity, if anything.
Possibly the fact that I could pity some one other than myself helped to raise my spirits. At any rate I managed to shake off a little of my gloom and tramped on up the Lane, feeling more like a human being and less like a yellow dog. Less as I should imagine a yellow dog ought to feel, I mean, for, as a matter of fact, most yellow dogs of my acquaintance seem to be as happy as their brown or white or black relatives. I walked up the Lane, turned into the Lower Road, and headed for the village. The day was a gorgeous one, the air bracing as a tonic, and my thirtieth birthday was not yet so far astern as to be lost in the fog. After all, there were some consolations in being alive and in a state of health not "debilitated." I began to whistle.
A quarter of a mile from the junction of the Shore Lane, on the Lower Road, was a willow-shaded spot, where the brook which irrigated Elnathan Mullet's cranberry swamp ran under a small wooden bridge. It was there that I first heard the horn and, turning, saw the automobile coming from behind me. It was approaching at a speed of, I should say, thirty miles an hour, and I jumped to the rail of the bridge to let it pass. Autos were not as common on the Cape then as they have become since. Now the average pedestrian of common-sense jumps first and looks afterwards.
However, I jumped in time, and stood still to watch the car as it went by. But it did not go by—not then. Its speed slackened as it approached and it came to a halt on the bridge beside me. A big car; an aristocratic car; a machine of pomp and price and polish, such as Denboro saw but seldom. It contained three persons—a capped and goggled chauffeur on the front seat, and a young fellow and a girl in the tonneau. They attracted my attention in just that order—first the chauffeur, then the young fellow, and, last of all, the girl.
It was the chauffeur who hailed me. He leaned across the upholstery beside him and, still holding the wheel, said:
"Say, Bill, what's the quickest way to get to Bayport?"
Now my name doesn't happen to be Bill and just then I objected to the re-christening. At another time I might have appreciated the joke and given him the information without comment. But this morning I didn't feel like joking. My dissatisfaction with the world in general included automobilists who made common folks get out of their way, and I was resentful.
"I should say that you had picked about as quick a way as any," I answered.
The chauffeur didn't seem to grasp the true inwardness of this brilliant bit.
"Aw, what—" he stammered. "Say, what—look here, I asked you—"
Then the young man in the tonneau took charge of the conversation. He was a very young man, with blond hair and a silky mustache, and his clothes fitted him as clothes have no right to fit—on Cape Cod.
"That'll do, Oscar," he ordered. Then, turning to me, he said:
"See here, my man, we want to go to Bayport."
I was not his man, and wouldn't have been for something. The chauffeur had irritated me, but he irritated me more. I didn't like him, his looks, his clothes, and, particularly, his manner. Therefore, because I didn't feel like answering, I showed my independence by remaining silent.
"What's the matter?" he demanded, impatiently. "Are you deaf? I say we want to go to Bayport."
A newspaper joke which I had recently read came to my mind. "Very well," I said, "you have my permission."
It was a rude thing to say, and not even original. I don't attempt to excuse it. In fact, I was sorry as soon as I had said it. It had its effect. The young man turned red. Then he laughed aloud.
"Well, by Jove!" he exclaimed. "What have we here? A humorist, I do believe! Mabel, we've discovered a genuine, rural humorist. Another David Harum, by Jove! Look at him!"
The girl in the tonneau swept aside her veil and looked, as directed. And I looked at her. The face that I saw was sweet and refined and delicate, a beautiful young face, the face of a lady, born and bred. All this I saw and realized at a glance; but what I was most conscious of at the time was the look in the dark eyes as they surveyed me from head to foot. Indifference was there, and contemptuous amusement; she didn't even condescend to smile, much less speak. Under that look my self-importance shrank until the yellow dog with which I had compared myself loomed as large as an elephant. She might have looked that way at some curious and rather ridiculous bug, just before calling a servant to step on it.
The young man laughed again. "Isn't it a wonder, Mabel?" he asked. "The native wit on his native heath! Reuben—pardon me, your name is Reuben, isn't it?—now that you've had your little joke, would you condescend to tell us the road which we should take to reach Bayport in the shortest time? Would you oblige us to that extent?"
The young lady smiled at this. "Victor," she said, "how idiotic you are!"
I agreed with her. Idiot was one of the terms, the mildest, which I should have applied to that young man. I wanted very much to remove him from that car by what Lute would call the scruff of the neck. But most of all, just then, I wanted to be alone, to see the last of the auto and its occupants.
"First turn to the right, second to the left," I said, sullenly.
"Thank you, Reuben," vouchsafed the young man. "Here's hoping that your vegetables are fresher than your jokes. Go ahead, Oscar."
The chauffeur threw in the clutch and the car buzzed up the road, turning the corner at full speed. There was a loose board projecting from the bridge just under my feet. As a member—though an inactive one—of the Village Improvement Society I should have trodden it back into place. I didn't; I kicked it into the brook.
Then I walked on. But the remainder of my march was a silent one, without music. I did not whistle.
The post-office was at Eldredge's store, and Eldredge's store, situated at the corners, where the Main Road and the Depot Road—which is also the direct road to South Denboro—join, was the mercantile and social center of Denboro. Simeon Eldredge kept the store, and Simeon was also postmaster, as well as the town constable, undertaker, and auctioneer. If you wanted a spool of thread, a coffin, or the latest bit of gossip, you applied at Eldredge's. The gossip you could be morally certain of getting at once; the thread or the coffin you might have to wait for.
I scarcely know why I went to Eldredge's that morning. I did not expect mail, and I did not require Simeon's services in any one of his professional capacities. Possibly Lute's suggestion had some sort of psychic effect and I stopped at the post-office involuntarily. At any rate, I woke from the trance in which the encounter with the automobile had left me to find myself walking in at the door.
The mail was not yet due, to say nothing of having arrived or been sorted, but there was a fair-sized crowd on the settees and perched on the edge of the counter. Ezra Mullet was there, and Alonzo Black and Alvin Baker and Thoph Newcomb. Beriah Doane and Sam Cahoon, who lived in South Denboro, were there, too, having driven over behind Beriah's horse, on an errand; that is, Beriah had an errand and Sam came along to help him remember it. In the rear of the store, by the frame of letter boxes, Captain Jedediah Dean was talking with Simeon.
Alvin Baker saw me first and hailed me as I entered.
"Here's Ros Paine," he exclaimed. "He'll know more about it than anybody else. Hey, Ros, how many hired help does he keep, anyhow? Thoph says it's eight, but I know I counted more'n that, myself."
"It's eight, I tell you," broke in Newcomb, before I could answer. "There's the two cooks and the boy that waits on 'em—"
"The idea of having anybody wait on a cook!" interrupted Mullet. "That's blame foolishness."
"I never said he waited on the cooks. I said he waited on them—on the family. And there's a coachman—"
"Why do they call them kind of fellers coachmen?" put in Thoph. "There ain't any coach. I see the carriages when they come—two freight cars full of 'em. There was a open two-seater, and a buckboard, and that high-wheeled thing they called a dog-cart."
Beriah Doane laughed uproariously. "Land of love!" he shouted. "Does the dog have a cart all to himself? That's a good one! You and me ain't got no dog, Sam, but we might have a couple of cat-carts, hey? Haw! haw!"
Thoph paid no attention to this pleasantry. "There was the dog-cart," he repeated, "and another thing they called the 'trap.' But there wan't any coach; I'll swear to it."
"Don't make no difference," declared Alvin; "there was a man along that SAID he was the coachman, anyhow. And a big minister-lookin' feller who was a butler, and two hired girls besides the cooks. That's nine, anyhow. One more'n you said, Thoph."
"And that don't count the chauffeur, the chap that runs the automobiles," said Alonzo Black. "He's the tenth. Say, Ros," turning to me, "how many is there, altogether?"
"How many what?" I asked. It was my first opportunity to speak.
"Why, hired help—servants, you know. How many does Mr. Colton keep?"
"I don't know how many he keeps," I said. "Why should I?"
The group looked at me in amazement. Thoph Newcomb voiced the general astonishment.
"Why should you!" he repeated. "Why shouldn't you, you mean! You're livin' right next door to 'em, as you might say! My soul! If I was you I cal'late I'd know afore this time."
"No doubt you would, Thoph. But I don't. I didn't know the Coltons had arrived until I came by just now. They have arrived, I take it."
Arrived! There was no question of the arrival, nor of its being witnessed by everyone present, myself and the South Denboro delegates excepted. Newcomb and Baker and Mullet and Black began talking all together. I learned that the Colton invasion of Denboro was a spectacle only equaled by the yearly coming of the circus to Hyannis, or the opening of the cattle show at Ostable. The carriages and horses had arrived by freight the morning before; the servants and the family on the afternoon train.
"I see 'em myself," affirmed Alonzo. "I was as nigh to 'em as I be to you. Mrs. Colton is sort of fleshy, but as handsome a woman as you'd want to see. I spoke to her, too. 'It's a nice day,' I says, 'ain't it?'"
"What did she say?" asked Newcomb.
"She didn't say nothin'. Engine was makin' such a noise she didn't hear, I presume likely."
"Humph!" sniffed Baker, evidently envious; "I guess she heard you, all right. Fellers like you make me tired. Grabbin' every chance to curry favor with rich folks! Wonder you didn't tell her you drove a fish-cart and wanted her trade! As for me, I'm independent. Don't make no difference to me how well-off a person is. They're human, just the same as I am, and I don't toady to 'em. If they want to talk they can send for me. I'll wait till they do."
"Hope you've got lots of patience, Alvin," observed Mullet drily. During the hilarity which followed, and while the offended apostle of independence was trying to think of a sufficiently cutting reply, I walked to the rear of the store.
Our letter box was Number 218, in the center of the rack, and, as I approached, I glanced at it involuntarily. To my surprise there was a letter in it; I could see it through the glass of the box door. Lute had, as I knew, got the mail the previous evening and the morning's mail had not yet arrived. Therefore this letter must have been written by some one in Denboro and posted late the night before or early that morning. It was not the custom for Denboro residents to communicate with each other through the medium of the post. They preferred to save the two cents stamp money, as a general thing. Bills sometimes came by mail, but this was the tenth, not the first, of the month; and, besides, our bills were paid.
I reached into my pocket for my keys, unlocked the box and took out the letter. The envelope was square, of an expensive quality, and eminently aristocratic. It was postmarked Denboro, dated that morning, and addressed in a sharp, clear masculine hand unfamiliar to me, to "Roscoe Paine, Esq." The "Esq." would have settled it, if the handwriting had not. No fellow-townsman of my acquaintance would address me, or any one else, as Esquire. Misters and Captains were common enough, but Esquires—no.
It was a Denboro custom, when one received a mysterious letter, to get the fullest enjoyment out of the mystery before solving it. I had known Dorinda Rogers to guess, surmise and speculate for ten minutes before opening a patent medicine circular. But, though mysteries were uncommon enough in my life, I think I should have reached the solution of this one in the next second—in fact, I had torn the end from the envelope—when I was interrupted.
It was Captain Dean who interrupted me. He had evidently concluded his conversation with the postmaster and now was bearing down majestically upon me, like a ten thousand ton steamer on a porgie schooner.
"Hey, you—Ros!" he roared. He was at my elbow, but he roared just the same. Skipper of a coaster in his early days, he had never outgrown the habit of pitching his voice to carry above a fifty-mile gale. "Hey, Ros. See here; I want to talk to you."
I did not want to talk with any one, particularly with him. He was the individual who, according to Lute, had bracketed Mr. Rogers and myself as birds of a feather, the remark which was primarily responsible for my ill humor of the morning. If he had not said that, and if Lute had not quoted the saying to me, I might have behaved less like a fool when that automobile overtook me, I might not have given that young idiot, whose Christian name it seemed was Victor, the opportunity to be smart at my expense. That girl with the dark eyes might not have looked at me as if I were a worm or a June bug. Confound her! what right had she to look at me like that? Victor, or whatever his name was, was a cub and a cad and as fresh as the new paint on Ben Small's lighthouse, but he had deigned to speak. Whereas that girl—!
No, I did not want to talk with Jedediah Dean. However, he wanted to talk to me, and what he wanted he usually got.
Captain Dean was one of Denboro's leading citizens. His parents had been as poor as Job's turkey, but Jedediah had determined to get money and now he had it. He was reputed to be worth "upwards of thirty thousand," owned acres and acres of cranberry swamps, and the new house he had just built was almost as big as it was ugly, which is saying considerable. He had wanted to be a deacon in the church and, though the church was by no means so eager, deacon he became. He was an uncompromising Democrat, but he had forced himself into the Board of Selectmen, every other member a Republican. He was director in the Denboro bank, and it was town talk that his most ardent desire at the present time was to see his daughter Helen—Nellie, we all called her—married to George Taylor, cashier of that bank. As George and Nellie were "keeping company" it seemed likely that Captain Jed would be gratified in this, as in all other desires. He was a born boss, and did his best to run the town according to his ideas. Captain Elisha Warren, who lived over in South Denboro and was also a director in the bank, covered the situation when he said: "Jed Dean is one of those fellers who ought to have a big family to order around. The Almighty gave him only one child and so he adopted Denboro and is bossin' that."
"I want to talk to you, Ros," repeated Captain Jed. "Come here."
He led the way to the settee by the calico and dress goods counter. I put the unread letter in my pocket and followed him.
"Set down," he ordered. "Come to anchor alongside."
I came to anchor.
"How's your mother?" he asked. "Matilda was cal'latin' to go down and set with her a spell this afternoon, if she didn't have anything else to do—if Matilda didn't, I mean."
Matilda was his wife. In her husband's company she was as dumb as a broken phonograph; when he was not with her she talked continuously, as if to get even. A call from Matilda Dean was one of the additional trials which made Mother's invalid state harder to bear.
"Course she may not come," Jedediah hastened to say. "She's pretty busy these days. But if she don't have anything else to do she will. I told her she'd better."
"Mother will be charmed," I said. Captain Jed was no fool and he looked at me sharply.
"Um; yes," he grunted. "I presume likely. You're charmed, too, ain't you?"
I was not expecting this. I murmured something to the effect that I was delighted, of course.
"Sartin. Well, that's all right. I didn't get you on this settee to charm you. I want to talk business with you a minute."
"Business! With me?"
"Yup. Or it may be business later on. I've been thinkin' about that Shore Lane, the one that runs through your land. Us town folks use that a whole lot. I cal'late most everybody's come to look at it as a reg'lar public road to the beach."
"Why, yes, I suppose they have," I said, puzzled to know what he was driving at. "It is a public road, practically."
"No, 'tain't, neither. It's a private way, and if you wanted to you could shut it off any day. A good many folks would have shut it off afore this."
"Oh, I guess not."
"I guess yes. I'd shut it off myself. I wouldn't have Tom, Dick and Harry drivin' fish wagons and tip carts full of seaweed through my premises free gratis for nothin'."
"Why?" I asked. "What harm does it do?"
"I don't know as it does any. But because a tramp sleepin' on my front piazza might not harm the piazza, that's no reason why I'd let him sleep there."
I laughed. "The two cases aren't exactly alike, are they?" I said. "The land is of no value to us at present. Mother and I are glad to have the Lane used, if it is a convenience, as I suppose it is."
"It's that, sartin. Ros, who owns that land the Lane runs through—you or your mother?"
"It is in my name," I said.
"Um-hm. Well, would you sell it?"
"Sell it! Sell that strip of sand and beach grass! Who would buy it?"
"I don't know as anybody would. I just asked if you'd sell it, that's all."
"Perhaps I would. I presume I should, if I had the chance."
"Ain't had any chance yet, have you?"
"What do you mean by that?"
"Oh, nothin', nothin'! Well, you just think it over. If you decide you would sell it and get so fur as fixin' a price on it, let me know, will you?"
"Captain, what in the world do you want of that land? See here! you don't want to shut off the Shore Lane, do you?"
"What in time would I want to shut it off for? I use it as much as anybody, don't I?"
"Then I don't see—"
"Maybe there ain't nothin' TO see. Only, if you decide to sell, let me know. Yes, and don't sell WITHOUT lettin' me know. Understand?"
"No, I don't."
"Well, you understand enough, I cal'late. All I want you to do is to promise not to sell that land the Lane's on without speakin' to me fust. Will you promise that?"
I considered for a moment. "Yes," I said, "I'll promise that. Though I can't imagine what you're driving at."
"You don't need to. Maybe I'm just drivin' blind; I hope I am. That's all I wanted to talk about," rising from the settee. "Oh, by the way," he added, "your neighborhood's honored just now, ain't it? The King of New York's arrived, they tell me."
"King of New York? Oh! I see; you mean the Coltons."
"Sartin. Who else? Met his Majesty yet?"
"No. Have you?"
"I met him when he was down a month ago. Sim Eldredge introduced me right here in the store. 'Mr. Colton,' says Sim, proud but humble, so to speak, 'let me make you acquainted with one of our selectmen, Cap'n Dean. Cap'n, shake hands with Mr. Colton of New York.' We shook, and I cal'late I'd ought to have kept that hand in a glass case ever since. But, somehow or other, I ain't."
"What sort of a chap is Colton?" I asked.
"Oh, all right of his kind, I guess. In amongst a gang of high financers like himself he'd size up as a pretty good sport, I shouldn't wonder. And he was polite enough to me, I suppose. But, darn him, I didn't like the way he looked at me! He looked as if—as if—well, I can't tell you how he looked."
"You don't need to," I said, brusquely. "I know."
"You do, hey? He ain't looked at you, has he? No, course he ain't! You said you hadn't met him."
"I've met others of his kind."
"Yes. Well, I'm a hayseed and I know it. I'm just a countryman and he's a millionaire. He'll be the big show in this town from now on. When he blows his nose seven-eighths of this community 'll start in workin' up a cold in the head."
He turned on his heel and started to go.
"Will you?" I asked, slily.
He looked back over his shoulder. "I ain't subject to colds—much," he snapped. "But YOU better lay in a supply of handkerchiefs, Ros."
I smiled. I knew what was troubling him. A little tin god has a pleasant time of it, no doubt, until the coming of the eighteen carat gold idol. Captain Jed had been boss of Denboro—self-appointed to that eminent position, but holding it nevertheless—and to be pushed from his perch by a city rival was disagreeable. If I knew him he would not be dethroned without a fight. There were likely to be some interesting and lively times in our village.
I could understand Dean's dislike of Colton, but his interest in the Shore Lane was a mystery. Why should he wish to buy that worthless strip of land? And what did he mean by asking if I had chances to sell it? Still pondering over this puzzle, I walked toward the front of the store, past the group waiting for the mail, where the discussion concerning the Coltons was still going on, Thoph Newcomb and Alvin Baker both talking at once.
"You ask Ros," shouted Alvin, pounding the counter beside him. "Say, Ros, Newcomb here seems to think that because a feller comes from the city and is rich that that gives him the right to order the rest of us around as if we was fo'mast hands. He says—"
"I don't neither!" yelled Thoph. "What I say is that money counts, and—"
"You do, too! Ros, do YOU intend to get down on your knees to them Coltons?"
I laughed and went on without replying. I left the store and strolled across the road to the bank, intending to make a short call on George Taylor, the cashier, my most intimate acquaintance and the one person in Denboro who came nearest to being my friend.
But George was busy in the directors' room, and, after waiting a few moments in conversation with Henry Small, the bookkeeper, I gave it up and walked home, across the fields this time; I had no desire to meet more automobilists.
Dorinda had finished dusting the dining room and was busy upstairs. I could hear the swish-swish of her broom overhead. I opened the door leading to Mother's bedroom and entered, closing the door behind me.
The curtains were drawn, as they always were on sunny days, and the room was in deep shadow. Mother had been asleep, I think, but she heard my step and recognized it.
"Is that you, Boy?" she asked. If I had been fifty, instead of thirty-one, Mother would have called me "Boy" just the same.
"Yes, Mother," I said.
"Where have you been? For a walk? It is a beautiful morning, isn't it."
Her only way of knowing that the morning was a beautiful one was that the shades were drawn. She had not seen the sunlight on the bay, nor the blue sky; she had not felt the spring breeze on her face, or the green grass beneath her feet. Her only glimpses of the outside world were those which she got on cloudy or stormy days when the shades were raised a few inches and, turning her head on the pillow, she could see beneath them. For six years she had been helpless and bedridden in that little room. But she never complained.
I told her that I had been uptown for a walk.
"Did you meet any one?" she asked.
I said that I had met Captain Dean and Newcomb and the rest. I said nothing of my encounter with the motor car.
"Captain Jed graciously informed me that his wife might be down to sit with you this afternoon," I said. "Provided she didn't have anything else to do; he took pains to add that. You mustn't see her, of course."
She smiled. "Why not?" she asked. "Matilda is a little tiresome at times, but she means well."
"Humph! Mother, I think you would make excuses for the Old Harry himself. That woman will talk you to death."
"Oh, no! Not as bad as that. And poor Matilda doesn't talk much at home, I'm afraid."
"Her husband sees to that; I don't blame him. By the way, the Captain had a queer bee in his bonnet this morning. He seems to be thinking of buying some of our property."
I told her of Jedediah's interest in the Shore Lane and his hint concerning its possible purchase. She listened and then said thoughtfully:
"What have you decided to do about it, Roscoe?"
"I haven't decided at all. What do you think, Mother?"
"It seems to me that I shouldn't sell, at least until I knew his reason for wanting to buy. It would be different if we needed the money, but, of course, we don't."
"Of course," I said, hastily. "But why not sell? We don't use the land."
"No. But the Denboro people need that Lane. They use it a great deal. If it were closed it would put many of them to a great inconvenience, particularly those who get their living alongshore. Every one in Denboro has been so kind to us. I feel that we owe them a debt we never can repay."
"No one could help being kind to you, Mother. Oh! I have another piece of news. Did you know that our new neighbors, the Coltons, have arrived?"
"Yes. Dorinda told me. Have you met any of them?"
"Dorinda says Mrs. Colton is an invalid. Poor woman! it must be hard to be ill when one has so much to enjoy. Dorinda says they have a very pretty daughter."
I made no comment. I was not interested in pretty daughters, just then. The memory of the girl in the auto was too fresh in my mind.
"Did you go to the post-office, Roscoe?" asked Mother. "I suppose there were no letters. There seldom are."
Then I remembered the letter in my pocket. I had forgotten it altogether.
"Why, yes, there was a letter, a letter for me. I haven't read it yet."
I took the envelope from my pocket and drew out the enclosure. The latter was a note, very brief and very much to the point. I read it.
"Well, by George!" I exclaimed, angrily.
"What is it, Roscoe?"
"It appears to be a summons from what Captain Jed called the King of New York. A summons to appear at court."
"Oh, not the criminal court. Merely the palace of his Majesty. Just listen."
This was the letter:
Roscoe Paine, Esq.
I should like to see you at my house this—Thursday—forenoon, on a matter of business. I shall expect you at any time after ten in the morning.
JAMES W. COLTON.
"From Mr. Colton!" exclaimed Mother. "Why! what can he want of you?"
"I don't know," I answered. "And I don't particularly care."
"Mother, did you ever hear such a cool, nervy proposition in your life? He wants to see me and he orders me to come to him. Why doesn't he come to me?"
"I suppose he didn't think of it. He is a big man in New York and he has been accustomed to having people come at his convenience. It's his way of doing things, I suppose."
"Then I don't like the way. This is Denboro, not New York. He will expect me at any time after ten, will he? Well, as Mullet said to Alvin Baker just now at the post-office, I hope he has lots of patience. He'll need it."
"But what can he want of you?"
"I don't know. Wants to look over his nearest jay neighbor, I should imagine, and see what sort of a curio he is. He thinks it may be necessary to put up barbed wire fences, I suppose."
"Roscoe, don't be narrow-minded. Mr. Colton's ways aren't ours and we must make allowances."
"Let him make a few, for a change."
"Aren't you going to see him?"
"No. At least not until I get good and ready."
Dorinda came in just then to ask Mother some questions concerning dinner, for, though Mother had not seen the dining room since that day, six years ago, when she was carried from it to her bedroom, she kept her interest in household affairs and insisted on being consulted on all questions of management and internal economy. I rose from my chair and started toward the door.
"Are you going, Roscoe?" asked Mother.
"Oh, just out of doors; perhaps to the boat-house."
"What is the matter? Something has gone wrong; I knew it as soon as you came in. What is it?"
"Nothing. That is, nothing of any consequence. I'm a little out of sorts to-day and that man's letter irritates me. I'll get over it. I'll be back soon. Good-by, Mother."
I went out through the dining room and kitchen, to the back yard, where, seating myself on Lute's favorite resting place, the wash bench, I lit my pipe and sat thinking, gloomily thinking.
It is a dreadful thing to hate one's own father; to hate him and be unable to forgive him even though he is dead, although he paid for his sin with his life. Death is said to pay all debts, but there are some it cannot pay. To my father I owed my present ambitionless, idle, good-for-nothing life, my mother's illness, years of disgrace, the loss of a name—everything.
Paine was my mother's maiden name; she was christened Comfort Paine. My own Christian name is Roscoe and my middle name is Paine. My other name, the name I was born with, the name that Mother took when she married, we dropped when the disgrace came upon us. It was honored and respected once; now when it was repeated people coupled it with shame and crime and dishonor and broken trust.
As a boy I remember myself as a spoiled youngster who took the luxuries of this world for granted. I attended an expensive and select private school, idled my way through that somehow, and entered college, a happy-go-lucky young fellow with money in my pocket. For two-thirds of my Freshman year—which was all I experienced of University life—I enjoyed myself as much as possible, and studied as little. Then came the telegram. I remember the looks of the messenger who brought it, the cap he wore, and the grin on his young Irish face when the fellow sitting next me at the battered black oak table in the back room of Kelly's asked him to have a beer. I remember the song we were singing, the crowd of us, how it began again and then stopped short when the others saw the look on my face. The telegram contained but four words: "Come home at once." It was signed with the name of my father's lawyer.
I presume I shall never forget even the smallest incident of that night journey in the train and the home-coming. The lawyer's meeting me at the station in the early morning; his taking care that I should not see the newspapers, and his breaking the news to me. Not of the illness or death which I had feared and dreaded, but of something worse—disgrace. My father was an embezzler, a thief. He had absconded, had run away, like the coward he was, taking with him what was left of his stealings. The banking house of which he had been the head was insolvent. The police were on his track. And, worse and most disgraceful of all, he had not fled alone. There was a woman with him, a woman whose escapades had furnished the papers with sensations for years.
I had never been well acquainted with my father. We had never been friends and companions, like other fathers and sons I knew. I remember him as a harsh, red-faced man, whom, as a boy, I avoided as much as possible. As I grew older I never went to him for advice; he was to me a sort of walking pocket-book, and not much else. Mother has often told me that she remembers him as something quite different, and I suppose it must be true, otherwise she would not have married him; but to me he was a source of supply coupled with a bad temper, that was all. That I was not utterly impossible, that, going my own gait as I did, I was not a complete young blackguard, I know now was due entirely to Mother. She and I were as close friends as I would permit her to be. Father had neglected us for years, though how much he had neglected and ill-treated her I did not know until she told me, afterward. She was in delicate health even then, but, when the blow fell, it was she and not I who bore up bravely and it was her pluck and nerve, not mine, which pulled us through that dreadful time.
And it was dreadful. The stories and pictures in the papers! The rumors, always contradicted, that the embezzler had been caught! The misrepresentation and lies and scandal! The loss of those whom we had supposed were friends! Mother bore them all, wore a calm, brave face in public, and only when alone with me gave way, and then but at rare intervals. She clung to me as her only comfort and hope. I was sullen and wrathful and resentful, an unlicked cub, I suspect, whose complaints were selfish ones concerning the giving up of my college life and its pleasures, and the sacrifice of social position and wealth.
Mother had—or so we thought at the time—a sum in her own name which would enable us to live; although not as we had lived by a great deal. We took an apartment in an unfashionable quarter of the city, and thanks to the lawyer—who proved himself a real and true friend—I was given a minor position in a small bank. Oddly enough, considering my former life, I liked the work, it interested me, and during the next few years I was made, by successive promotions, bookkeeper, teller, and, at last, assistant cashier. No news came from the absconder. The police had lost track of him, and it seemed probable that he would never be heard of again. But over Mother and myself hung always the dread that he might be found and all the dreadful business revived once more. Mother never mentioned it, nor did I, but the dread was there.
Then came the first breakdown in Mother's health which necessitated her removal to the country. Luther and Dorinda Rogers were distant relatives of our friend, the lawyer. They owned the little house by the shore at Denboro and the lawyer had visited them occasionally on shooting and fishing trips. They were in need of money, for, as Dorinda said: "We've got two mouths in this family and only one pair of hands. One of the mouths is so big that the hands can't fill it, let alone the mouth that belongs to THEM." Mother—as Mrs. Paine, a widow—went there first as a boarder, intending to remain but a few months. Dorinda took to her at once, being attracted in the beginning, I think, by the name. "They call you Comfort Paine," she said, "and you are a comfort to everybody else's pain. Yet you ain't out of pain a minute scurcely, yourself. I never see anything like it. If 'twan't wicked I'd say that name was give you by the Old Scratch himself, as a sort of divilish joke. But anybody can see that the Old Scratch never had anything in common with you, even a hand in the christenin'."
Dorinda was very kind, and Lute was a never-ending joy in his peculiar way. Mother would have been almost happy in the little Denboro home, if I had been with her. But she was never really happy when we were separated, a condition of mind which grew more acute as her health declined. I came down from the city once every month and those Sundays were great occasions. The Denboro people know me as Roscoe Paine.
For a time Mother seemed to be holding her own. In answer to my questions she always declared that she was ever so much better. But Doctor Quimby, the town physician, looked serious.
"She must be kept absolutely quiet," he said. "She must not be troubled in any way. Worry or mental distress is what I fear most. Any sudden bad news or shock might—well, goodness knows what effect it might have. She must not be worried. Ros—" after one has visited Denboro five times in succession he is generally called by his Christian name—"Ros, if you've got any worries you keep 'em to yourself."
I had worries, plenty of them. Our little fortune, saved, as we thought, from the wreck, suffered a severe shrinkage. A considerable portion of it, as the lawyers discovered, was involved and belonged to the creditors. I said nothing to Mother about this: she supposed that we had a sufficient income for our needs, even without my salary. Without telling her I gave up our city apartment, stored our furniture, and took a room in a boarding-house. I was learning the banking business, was trusted with more and more responsibility, and believed my future was secure. Then came the final blow.
I saw the news in the paper when I went out to lunch. "Embezzler and His Companion Caught in Rio Janeiro. He Commits Suicide When Notified of His Arrest." These headlines stared at me as I opened the paper at the restaurant table. My father had shot himself when the police came. I read it with scarcely more than a vague feeling of pity for him. It was of Mother that I thought. The news must be kept from her. If she should hear of it! What should I do? I went first of all to the lawyer's office: he was out of town for the day. I wandered up and down the streets for an hour. Then I went back to the bank. There I found a telegram from Doctor Quimby: "Mrs. Paine very ill. Come on first train." I knew what it meant. Mother had heard the news; the shock which the doctor dreaded had had its effect.
I reached Denboro the next morning. Lute met me at the station. From his disjointed and lengthy story I gathered that Mother had been "feelin' fust-rate for her" until the noon before. "I come back from the post-office," said Lute, "and I was cal'latin' to read the newspaper, but Dorindy had some everlastin' chore or other for me to do—I believe she thinks 'em up in her sleep—and I left the paper on the dinin'-room table and went out to the barn. Dorindy she come along to boss me, as usual. When we went back to the house there was Mrs. Comfort on the dinin'-room floor—dead, we was afraid at fust. The paper was alongside of her, so we judge she was just a-goin' to read it when she was took. The doctor says it's a paralysis or appleplexy or somethin'. We carried her into the bedroom, but she ain't spoke sence."
She did not speak for weeks and when she did it was to ask for me. She called my name over and over again and, if I left her, even for a moment, she grew so much worse that the doctor forbade my going back to the city. I obtained a leave of absence from the bank for three months. By that time she was herself, so far as her reason was concerned, but very weak and unable to bear the least hint of disturbance or worry. She must not be moved, so Doctor Quimby said, and he held out no immediate hope of her recovering the use of her limbs. "She will be confined to her bed for a long time," said the doctor, "and she is easy only when you are here. If you should go away I am afraid she might die." I did not go away. I gave up my position in the bank and remained in Denboro.
At the end of the year I bought the Rogers house and land, moved a portion of our furniture down there, sold the rest, and resigned myself to a period of idleness in the country. Dorinda I hired as housekeeper, and when Dorinda accepted the engagement she threw in Lute, so to speak, for good measure.
And here I have been ever since. At first I looked upon my stay in Denboro as a sort of enforced vacation, which was to be, of course, only temporary. But time went on and Mother's condition continued unchanged. She needed me and I could not leave her. I fished and, shot and sailed and loafed, losing ambition and self-respect, aware that the majority of the village people considered me too lazy to earn a living, and caring little for their opinion. At first I had kept up a hit or miss correspondence with one or two of my associates in the bank, but after a while I dropped even this connection with the world. I was ashamed to have my former acquaintances know what I had become, and they, apparently, were quite willing to forget me. I expected to live and die in Denboro, and I faced the prospect with indifference.
The summer people, cottagers and boarders, I avoided altogether and my only friend, and I did not consider him that, was George Taylor, the Denboro bank cashier. He was fond of salt-water and out-door sports and we, occasionally enjoyed them together.
Thanks to the lawyer, our names had been scarcely mentioned in the papers at the time of my father's death. No one in the village knew our identity or our story. And, because I knew that Mother would worry if she were told, I kept from her the fact that our little income was but half of what it had been. Our wants were few, and if my clothes were no longer made by the best tailors, if they were ready-made and out-of-date and lacked pressing, they were whole, at all events, because Dorinda was a tip-top mender. In fact, I had forgotten they were out-of-date until the sight of the immaculately garbed young chap in the automobile brought the comparison between us to my mind.
But now, as I sat on the wash-bench, thinking of all this, I looked down at my baggy trousers and faded waistcoat with disgust. One of the surest signs of the loss of self-respect is a disregard of one's personal appearance. I looked like a hayseed—not the independent countryman who wears old clothes on week days from choice and is proudly conscious of a Sunday suit in the closet—but that other variety, the post-office and billiard-room idler who has reached the point of utter indifference, is too shiftless to care. Captain Jed was not so far wrong, after all—Lute Rogers and I were birds of a feather in more ways than one.
No wonder that girl in the auto had looked at me as if I were something too contemptible for notice. Yet I hated her for that look. I had behaved like a boor, of course. Because I was a failure, a country loafer with no prospect of ever being anything else, because I could not ride in automobiles and others could—these were no good reasons for insulting strangers more fortunate than I. Yet I did hate that girl. Just then I hated all creation, especially that portion of it which amounted to anything.
I took the letter from my pocket and read it again. "I should like to see you . . . on a matter of business." What business could "Yours truly, James W. Colton" have with me? And Captain Jed also had talked business. I supposed that I had given up business long ago and for good; now, all at once, it seemed to be hunting me. Well, all the hunting should be on its side.
At another time I might have treated the great Colton's "summons to court" as a joke. I might, like Mother, have regarded the curtness of the command and its general tone of taking my prompt obedience for granted as an expression of the Wall Street magnate's habit of mind, and nothing more. He was used to having people jump when he snapped his fingers. But now it made me angry. I sympathized with Dean and Alvin Baker. The possession of money did not necessarily imply omnipotence. This was Cape Cod, not New York. His Majesty might, as Captain Jed put it, have blown his Imperial nose, but I, for one, wouldn't "lay in a supply of handkerchiefs"—not yet.
I heard a rustle in the bushes and, turning my head, saw Lute coming along the path. He was walking fast—fast for him, that is—and seemed to be excited. His excitement, however, did not cause him to forget prudence. He looked carefully about to be sure his wife was not in sight, before he spoke.
"Dorindy ain't been here sence I've been gone, has she?" was his first question.
"I guess not," said I. "She has been in the house since I got back. But I don't know how long you've been gone."
"Only a few minutes. I—I just stepped over 'cross the Lane for a jiffy, that's all. Say, by time; them Coltons must have money!"
"That's a habit of millionaires, I believe."
"Hey? What do you mean by that? If they didn't have money they couldn't be millionaires, could they? How'd you like to be a millionaire, Ros?"
"I don't know. I never tried."
"By time! I'D like to try a spell. I've been over lookin' 'round their place. You never see such a place! Why, their front doorstep's big as this yard, pretty nigh."
"Does it have to be raked?" I asked.
"Raked! Whoever heard of rakin' a doorstep?"
"Give it up! But it does seem to me that I have heard of raking a yard. I think Dorinda mentioned that, didn't she?"
Lute looked at me: then he hurried over and picked up the rake which was lying near the barn, a pile—a very small pile—of chips and leaves beside it.
"When did she mention it?" he asked.
"A week ago, I think, was the first time. She has referred to it occasionally since. She was mentioning it to you when I went up town this morning. I heard her."
Lute looked relieved. "Oh, THEN!" he said. "I thought you meant lately. Well, I'm rakin' it, ain't I? Say, Ros," he added, eagerly, "did you go to the post-office when you was uptown? Was there a letter there for you?"
"What makes you think there was?"
"Asa Peters' boy, the bow-legged one, told me. The chauffeur, the feller that pilots the automobiles, asked him where the post-office was and he see the address on the envelope. He said the letter was for you. I told him he was lyin'—"
"What in the world did you tell him that for?" I interrupted. I had known Lute a long time, but he sometimes surprised me, even yet.
"'Cause he is, nine times out of ten," replied Lute, promptly. "You never see such a young-one for dodgin' the truth. Why, one time he told his grandmother, Asa's ma, I mean, that—"
"What did he say about the letter?"
"Said 'twas for you. And the chauffeur said Mr. Colton told him to mail it right off. 'Twan't for you, was it, Ros?"
"It WAS! Well, by time! What did a man like Mr. Colton write to you about?"
Among his other lackings Lute was conspicuously short of tact. This was no time for him to ask me such a question, especially to emphasize the "you."
"Why shouldn't he write to me?" I asked, tartly.
"But—but HIM—writin' to YOU!"
"Humph! Even a god stoops once in a while. Read your mythology, Lute."
"Hey? Say, look here, what are you swearin' about?"
"Swearing? Oh, that's all right. The god I referred to was a heathen one."
"Well, it's a good thing Dorindy didn't hear you; she's down on swearin', heathen or any other kind. But what did Mr. Colton write to you for?"
"He says he wants to see me."
"See you? What for?"
"Don't know. Perhaps he wants to borrow money."
"Borrow—! I believe you're crazy!"
"No, I'm tolerably sane. There! there! don't look at me like that. Here's his letter. Read it, if you want to."
Lute's fingers were so eager to grasp that letter that they were all thumbs. He dropped it on the grass, picked it up with as much care as if it was a diamond, and holding it a foot from his nose—he had broken his spectacles and was afraid to ask Dorinda for the money to have them repaired—he spelt it out to the last word.
"Well, by time!" he exclaimed, when he had finished. "He wants to see you at his house this forenoon! And—and—why, the forenoon's all but gone now! What are you settin' here for?"
"Well, I thought I should enjoy watching you rake the yard. It is a pleasure deferred so far."
"Watchin' me—! Roscoe Paine, you are out of your head! Ain't you goin' to see him?"
"Ros Paine, have you jined in with them darn fools uptown?"
"Who's swearing now? What fools do you mean?"
"Darn ain't swearin'. Dorindy herself says that once in a while. I mean Alvin Baker, and Jed Dean and the rest of 'em. They was goin' on about Mr. Colton last night; said THEY wan't goin' to run at his beck and call. I told 'em, says I, 'You ain't had the chance. You'll run fast enough when you do.'"
"Did you say that to Captain Jed?"
"No-o. I said it to Alvin, but old Jed's just as bad. He's down on anybody that's got more'n he has. But Ros, you ain't foolish enough to side with Jed Dean. Just think! Here's Mr. Colton, richer'n King Solomon and all his glory. He's got servants and butlers and bonds and cowpons and horses and teams and automobiles and—"
I rose from the wash bench.
"I know what he's got, Lute," I interrupted. "And I know what he hasn't got."
"What? Is there anything he ain't got?"
"He hasn't got me—not yet. If he wants to see me he may. I expect to be at home for the next day or two."
"You don't mean you expect a millionaire like him to come cruisin' after YOU! Well, by time! I think I see him!"
"When you do, let me know," I said. "I should like to be prepared."
"Well,—by—time!" said Lute, by way of summing up. I ate dinner with Dorinda. Her husband did not join us. Dorinda paid a visit to the back yard and, seeing how little raking had been done, announced that until the job was finished there would be "no dinner for some folks." So she and I ate and Lute raked, under protest, and vowing that he was so faint and holler he cal'lated to collapse 'most any time.
After the meal was finished I went down to the boathouse. The boathouse was a little building on the beach at the foot of the bluff below the house. It was a favorite resort of mine and I spent many hours there. My eighteen foot motor launch, the Comfort, the one expensive luxury I allowed myself and which I had bought second-hand two years before, was jacked up in the middle of the floor. The engine, which I had taken apart to clean, was in pieces beside it. On the walls hung my two shot guns and my fishing rod. Outside, on the beach, was my flat-bottomed skiff, which I used for rowing about the bay, her oars under the thwarts. In the boathouse was a comfortable armchair and a small shelf of books, novels for the most part. A cheap clock and a broken-down couch, the latter a discard from the original outfit of the cottage, made up the list of furniture.
My idea in coming to the boathouse was to continue my work with the engine. I tried it for a half hour or so and then gave it up. It did not interest me then. I shut the door at the side of the building, that by which I had entered—the big double doors in front I had not opened at all—and, taking a book from the shelf, stretched myself on the couch to read.
The book I had chosen was one belonging to the Denboro Ladies' Library; Miss Almena Doane, the librarian, had recommended it highly, as a "real interesting story, with lots of uplifting thoughts in it." The thoughts might be uplifting to Almena, but they did not elevate my spirits. As for the story—well, the hero was a young gentleman who was poor but tremendously clever and handsome, and the heroine had eyes "as dark and deep as starlit pools." The poor but beautiful person met the pool-eyed one at a concert, where he sat, "his whole soul transfigured by the music," and she had been "fascinated in spite of herself" by the look on his face. I read as far as that and dropped the book in disgust.
After that I must have fallen asleep. What awakened me was a knock on the door. It was Lute, of course. Probably mother wanted me for something or other, and Dorinda had sent her husband to hunt me up.
The knock was repeated.
"Come in," I said, sleepily.
The door opened and in came, not Lute, but a tall, portly man, with a yachting cap on the back of his gray head, and a cigar in his mouth. He looked at me as I lay on the couch and I lay on the couch and looked at him.
"Afternoon," he said, curtly. "Is your name Paine?"
I nodded. I was waking rapidly, but I was too astonished to speak.
"Well, mine's Colton. I sent you a letter this morning. Did you get it?"
I sat up on the couch. Mr. Colton knocked the ashes from his cigar, waited an instant, and then repeated his question.
"Did you get my letter?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
"Oh, you did. I was afraid that man of mine might have forgotten to mail it."
"No, I got it. Won't you—er—won't you sit down?" He pulled the armchair toward him and sat down. I noticed that he had a habit of doing things quickly. His sentences were short and to the point and he spoke and acted like one accustomed to having his own way. He crossed his knees and looked about the little building.
"It is a pleasant day," I observed, for the sake of saying something. He did not seem to hear me, or, if he did, he was not interested in the weather. For my part I found the situation embarrassing. I knew what his next question would be, and I did not know how to answer. Sure enough, he asked it.
"I wrote you to come over to my place this forenoon," he said. "You didn't come."
Here was the issue joined. Here, if ever, was the opportunity to assert my independence a la Jed Dean and Alvin Baker. But to assert it now, after he had done the unexpected, after the mountain had come to Mahomet, seemed caddish and ridiculous. So I temporized, weakly.
"I didn't read your letter until about noon," I said.
"I see. Well, I waited until two o'clock and then I decided to hunt you up. I called at your house. The woman there said you were down here. Your mother?"
"No." My answer was prompt and sharp enough this time. It was natural, perhaps, that he should presume Dorinda to be my mother, but I did not like it.
He paid absolutely no attention to the tone of my reply or its curtness. He did not refer to Dorinda again. She might have been my wife or my great-aunt for all he cared.
"This your workshop?" he asked, abruptly. Then, nodding toward the dismembered engine, "What are you? a boat builder?"
"No, not exactly."
"What's the price of a boat like that?" indicating the Comfort with a kick in her direction.
"About two hundred and fifty dollars, I believe," I answered.
"You believe! Don't you know?"
"No. I bought that boat second-hand."
He did not refer to the boat again; apparently forgot it altogether. His next move was to rise and turn toward the door. I watched him, wondering what was going to happen next. He had a habit of jumping from one subject to another which was bewildering.
"What's that fellow doing off there?" he asked, suddenly.
I looked where he was pointing.
"That is Zeb Kendrick," I answered. "He's raking for quahaugs."
"Raking for what hogs?"
"Quahaugs. What you New Yorkers call clams."
"Oh! Sell 'em, does he?"
"Tell him to call at my house next time you see him. And for heaven's sake tell him to come to the servants' door. Don't you people down here have any servants' doors to your houses? There have been no less than fifty peddlers on my porch since yesterday and my butler will die of apoplexy if it keeps on. He's a good one, for a wonder, and I don't want to lose him."
I made no reply to this observation and he did not seem to expect any. He watched Zeb rake for a moment and then he turned back to me.
"Can you come over to my house now?" he asked.
I was not expecting this and again I did not have an answer ready.
"Can you?" he went on. "I've got a business deal to make with you and I'd rather make it there. I've got a lot of carpenters and painters at work and they ask me ten questions a minute. They are unnecessary questions but if I don't answer them the fellows are sure to make some fool mistake or other. They need a governess. If you'll come over with me I'll be in touch with them and you and I can talk just as well. Can come, can't you?"
I did not know what to say. I wanted to say no, that if he had any business with me it could be discussed in that boathouse. I did not like his manner, yet I had a feeling that it was his usual one and that he had not meant to be rude. And I could think of no good reason for not going with him.
"You can come, can't you?" he repeated.
"I suppose I can. But—"
"Of course if you're too busy to leave—"
I remembered the position he had found me in and I rather think I had turned red. He did not smile, but there was a sort of grim twinkle in his eyes.
"I'll come," I said.
"Much obliged. I won't keep you long. Come on."
He led the way and I followed, rebellious, and angry, not so much with him as with myself. I wished now that I had gone over to the Colton place when I first received the summons to court, instead of making proclamations of defiance to mother and Lute Rogers. This seemed such a complete backdown. As we passed the house I saw Lute peering from the barn. I devoutly hoped he might not see me, but he did. His mouth opened and he stared. Then, catching my eye, he winked triumphantly. I wanted to punch his head.
The King of New York walked briskly on in silence until we were just at the edge of the grove by the Shore Lane. Then he stopped and turned to me.
"You own all this land, don't you?" he asked.
"Humph! Get a good view from here."
I admitted that the view was good. At that particular point it embraced nearly the whole of the bay in front, and a large portion of the village at the side.
He waved his hand toward the cluster of houses.
"There are eighteen hundred people in this town, they tell me," he said. "Permanent residents, I mean. What do they all do?"
"Yes. How do they get a living? They must get it somehow. In the regular summer resorts they squeeze it out of the city people, I know that. But there aren't so many cottagers and boarders here. What do you all do for a living?"
I told him that most of masculine Denboro fished or farmed or kept store.
"Which do you do?" he asked. "You said you weren't a boat-builder."
"I'm not doing anything at present," I replied, shortly.
"Out of a job?"
"You might call it that. Is this a part of the business you wished to see me about, Mr. Colton?"
I was boiling inwardly and a little of the heat was expressed in my tone. I don't know whether he took the hint or merely lost interest in the subject. At any rate his reply was a brief "No," and we continued our walk.
As we reached the Shore Lane he paused again, and I thought he was about to speak. He did not, however, and we crossed the boundary line of my property and entered the Colton grounds. As we drew nearer to the house I was surprised to see how large it was. When the Atwaters owned it I was an occasional caller there, for old Major Atwater was fond of shooting and sometimes borrowed my decoys. But, since it changed hands, I had not been nearer to it than the Lane. With the new wing and the other additions it was enormous. It fairly reeked of money, though, so far as I was a judge, the taste shown in rebuilding and decorating was good. We turned the corner, where Asa Peters, the head carpenter, came hurrying up. Asa looked surprised enough to see me in company with his employer and regarded me wonderingly. "Mr. Colton," he said, "I wanted to ask you about them skylights." I stepped back out of hearing, but I inferred from Colton's actions that the question was another one of the "unnecessary" ones he had so scornfully referred to in the boathouse.
"Jackass!" he exclaimed, as he rejoined me. I judged he was classifying Asa, but, if so, he did not trouble to lower his voice. "Come on, Paine," he added, and we passed a long line of windows, hung with costly curtains, and stepped up on a handsome Colonial portico before two big doors.
The doors were opened by an imposing personage in dark blue and brass buttons, who bowed profoundly before Colton and regarded me with condescending superiority. This personage, whom I recognized, from Alvin's description, as the "minister-lookin'" butler, led us through a hall about as large as our sitting-room, dining-room and kitchen combined, but bearing no other resemblance to these apartments, and opened another door, through which, bowing once more, he ushered us. Then he closed the door, leaving himself, to my relief, outside. It had been a long time since I was waited upon by a butler and I found this specimen rather overpowering.
The room we were in was the library, and, though it was bigger and far more sumptuous than the library I remembered so well as a boy, the sight of the books in their cases along the walls gave me a feeling almost of homesickness. My resentment against my millionaire neighbor increased. Why should he and his have everything, and the rest of us be deprived of the little we once had?
Colton seated himself in a leather upholstered chair and waved his hand toward another.
"Sit down," he said. He took a cigar from his pocket. "Smoke?" he asked.
I was a confirmed smoker, but I was not going to smoke one of his cigars—not then.
"No thank you," said I. He did not comment on my refusal, but lit the cigar himself, from the stump of his former one. Then he crossed his legs and proceeded, with characteristic abruptness, to his subject.
"Paine," he began, "you own this land next to me, you say. Your property ends at the fence this side of that road we just crossed, doesn't it?"
"It ends where yours begins," I announced.
"Yes. Just this side of that road."
"Of the Shore Lane. It isn't a road exactly."
"I don't care what you call it. Road or lane or cow-path. It ends there?"
"And it IS your land? It belongs to you, personally, all of it, free and clear?"
"Why—yes; it does." I could not see what business of his my ownership of that land might be.
"All right. I asked that because, if it wasn't yours, if it was tied up or mortgaged in any way, it might complicate matters. But it isn't."
"Good! Then we can get down to brass tacks and save time. I want a piece of that land."
I looked at him.
"You want—?" I repeated, slowly.
"I want a strip of your land. Want to buy it, of course. I don't expect you to give it to me. What's it worth, by the acre, say?"
I did not answer. All at once I was beginning to see a light. Captain Jed Dean's mysterious conversation at the post-office was beginning to lose some of its mystery.
"Well?" asked Colton, impatiently. Then, without waiting longer, he added:
"By the way, before you name a figure, answer me one more question. That road—or lane, or whatever it is—that is yours, too? Doesn't belong to the town?"
The light was growing more brilliant. I could see breakers ahead.
"No," I replied, slowly. "It is a private way. It belongs to me."
"Good! Well, what's that land of yours worth by the acre?"
I shook my head. "I scarcely know," I said. "I've never figured it that way."
"I don't care how you figure it. Here, let's get down to a business proposition. I want to buy a strip of that land from the Lower Road—that's what you call the one above here, isn't it?—to the beach. The strip I want is about three hundred feet wide, for a guess. It extends from my fence to the other side of that grove by the bluff. What will you sell it for?"
The breakers were close aboard. However, I dodged them momentarily.
"Why do you want to buy?" I asked.
"I should think you had land enough already."
"I thought I had, but it seems I haven't. Well, what's your price for that strip?"
"Mr. Colton, I—I'm afraid—"
"Never mind that. I suppose you're afraid you'll make the price too low. Now, see here, I'm a busy man. I haven't time to do any bargaining. Name your price and, if it's anywhere within reason, we won't haggle. I expect to pay more than anyone else would. That's part of my fine for being a city man and not a native. Gad! the privilege is worth the money. I'll pay the fine. What's the price?"
"But why do you want to buy?"
"For reasons of my own, I tell you. They haven't anything to do with your selling."
"I'm not so sure."
"What do you mean by that?"
"That strip takes in the Shore Lane, Mr. Colton."
"I know it."
"And, if you buy, I presume the Lane will be closed."
He looked at me, surprised, and, I thought, a little annoyed.
"Well?" he said; "suppose it is?"
"But it will be, won't it?"
"You bet your life it will! What of it?"
"Then I don't know that I care to sell."
He leaned back in his chair.
"You don't care to sell!" he repeated, slowly. "What the devil do you mean by that?"
"What I said. And, besides, Mr. Colton, I—"
He interrupted me.
"Why don't you care to sell?" he demanded. "The land is no good to you, is it?"
"Not much. No."
"Humph! Are you so rich that you've got all the money you want?"
I was angry all through. I rose from my chair.
"Good day, Mr. Colton," I said.
"Here!" he shouted. "Hold on! Where are you going?"
"I can't see that there is any use of our talking further."
"No use? Why—There! there! sit down. It's none of my business how rich you are, and I beg your pardon. Sit down. Sit down, man, I tell you!"
I sat down, reluctantly. He threw his cigar, which had gone out, into the fireplace and lit another.
"Say," he said, "you surprise me, Paine. What do you mean by saying you won't sell that land? You don't know what I'll pay for it yet."
"No, I don't."
"Then how do you know you won't sell it? I never had anything yet—except my wife and family—that I wouldn't sell for a price. Look here! I haven't got time to do any Down-East horse-jockeying. I'll make you an offer. I'll give you five hundred dollars cash for that strip of land. What do you say?"
I didn't say anything. Five hundred dollars was a generous offer. I couldn't help thinking what Mother and I might do with that five hundred dollars.
"What do you say?" he repeated.
I answered, Yankee fashion, with another question. "Mr. Colton," I asked, "why do you want to close that Shore Lane?"
"Because I do. What difference does it make to you why I want to close it?"
"That Lane has been used by Denboro people for years. It is almost a public necessity."
He puffed twice on his cigar before he spoke again. When he did it was in a different tone.
"I see," he said. "Humph! I see. Paine, does the town pay you rent for the use of that road?"
"Has it been bidding to buy it?"
"Is any one else after it?"
"No-o. I think not. But—"
"You THINK not. That means you're not sure. You've had a bite somewhere. Somebody has been nibbling at your hook. Well, they've got to bite quick and swallow some to get ahead of me. I want that road closed and I'm going to have it closed, sooner or later. I'd prefer it sooner."
"But why do you want to close it?"
Before he could answer there came a knock at the door. The butler appeared.
"I beg your pardon, sir—" he began. His master cut him short.
"Tell 'em to wait," he ordered. "I can't see any one now, Johnson. If it is that damned carpenter he can wait."
"It isn't the carpenter, sir," explained Johnson. "It's Mrs. Colton, sir. She wishes to know if you have bought that road. She says three of those 'orrid fishcarts have gone by in the last hour, sir, and they are making her very nervous. That's all, sir."
"Tell her I've bought it," snapped the head of the house. "Get out."
The butler obeyed orders. Colton turned to me.
"You heard that, Paine," he said. "That's my reason, the principal one. I bought this place principally on account of Mrs. Colton's health. The doctors said she needed quiet and rest. I thought she could have them here—God knows the place looked forsaken enough—but it appears she can't. Whenever she or I sit on the veranda or at a window we have to watch a procession of jays driving smelly fish carts through that lane of yours, or be stared at by a gang of countrymen hanging over the fence. It's a nuisance. It is bad enough for me or my daughter and our guests, but it will be the ruination of my wife's nerves, and I can't stand for that. You see the position I'm in. You heard what I told that butler. I said I had bought the road. You wouldn't make me a liar, would you? I'll give you five hundred for that bunch of sand. You couldn't get more for it if you sold it by the pound, like tea. Say yes, and close the deal."