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The Rise of Roscoe Paine by Joseph C. Lincoln

Part 6 out of 9

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I laughed. "Not quite," I said. "I should be glad of your
company, Mr. Colton."

"Next Saturday suit you?"

"Yes. After bank hours."

"All right. I'll look after the boat. You provide the bait and
tackle. That's fair, isn't it? Right. Be on hand at my dock at
one o'clock. Morning."

He walked off. Neither of us had thought of the tide--he,
probably, not realizing that high water was an important factor,
and I being too much agitated by what he had said about Mother, and
the suddenness with which the fishing trip was planned, to think
calmly of anything.

That week was a strange one to me, and the first of many strange
ones. My manner of life was changing, although I did not realize
it and although the change came through no effort of my own. Our
house, which had been so long almost a hermitage, if a home
containing four persons might be called that, was gradually
becoming a social center. Matilda Dean had called once a week
regularly for some time and this particular week Captain Jed came
with her. Captain Elisha Warren and his cousin and housekeeper,
Miss Abbie Baker, drove down for a half-hour's stay. George Taylor
and Nellie spent an evening with us. I feared the unaccustomed
rush of company might have a bad effect upon Mother, but she seemed
actually the better for it. She professed to believe that Denboro
was awakening to the fact of my merits as a man and a citizen.
"They are finding you out at last, Boy," she said. I laughed at
her. I knew better. It was because of my position in the bank
that these people came. I was making good there, apparently, and
the surprise at this caused Captain Warren and the rest to take a
new, and no doubt transitory interest in me.

And I thought I knew Captain Jed's reason for coming. An interview
between us gave me the inkling. Matilda was in Mother's room and
Dean and I were together in the dining-room.

"Ros," said the captain, suddenly, "you ain't backin' water, are
you?"

"Backing water? What do you mean by that?"

"In this Lane business. You ain't cal'latin' to sell out to
Colton, after all?"

"Well, hardly. Why do you say that?"

"Nothin', maybe. But they tell me you're kind of thick with the
R'yal family lately. Beriah Holt says he see you and the Colton
girl come out of the woods back of his place one afternoon a spell
ago. She was on horseback and you was walkin', but Beriah says you
and she was mighty friendly."

I might have expected this. In Denboro one does few things
unnoticed.

"She had lost her way in the woods and I helped her to find the
road home," I said, "that was all."

"Hum! You helped her to find the road the night of the strawberry
festival, too, didn't you?"

"How in the world did you find that out?"

"Oh, it just sort of drifted around. I've got pretty big ears--
maybe you've noticed 'em--and they gen'rally catch some of what's
blowin' past. There was a coachman mixed up in that night's work
and he talked some, I shouldn't wonder; most of his kind do."

"Well, what of it?" I asked, sharply. "I helped her as I would
your daughter if she had been caught alone in a storm like that. I
should have been ashamed not to."

"Sartin! Needn't get mad about it. What's this about your takin'
his Majesty off fishin' next Saturday?"

All of my personal affairs seemed to be common property. I was
losing my temper in spite of my recent good resolutions.

"Look here, Captain Dean," I said, "I have a right to take any one
fishing, if I choose. Mr. Colton asked me to do it and I saw no
reason for saying no."

"Funny he should ask you. He ain't asked anybody else in town."

"I don't know that and I don't care. I shall do as I please. I
have no grievance against the Coltons. I shall not sell them my
land, but I reserve the right to meet them--yes, and to associate
with them--if I choose. You and your friends may as well
understand that, Captain."

"There! there! don't get huffy. I ain't got the right to say what
your rights are, Ros. And I don't think for a minute you'd back
water on the Lane business a-purpose. But I do think you're takin'
chances. I tell you, honest, I'm scart of old Colton, in a way,
and I ain't scart of many folks. He's a fighter and he's smart.
He and I have had some talks--"

"You have?" I interrupted.

"Yup. Lively squabbles they was, too. Each of us expressin' our
opinion of t'other and not holdin' back anything to speak of. I
don't know how he felt when we quit, but I know I respected him--
for his out and open cussedness and grit, if nothin' else. And I
think he felt the same way about me. But he's smart--consarn him,
he is! And HE never backs water. That's why I think you're takin'
chances in bein' too friendly with him. He's layin' low and, if
you get off your guard just once he'll grab."

I hesitated; then I made up my mind.

"Captain Dean," I said, "his smartness hasn't caught me yet. I'm
going to tell you something, but first you must promise not to tell
anyone else."

He promised and I told him of Mr. Keene and the Bay Shore Company.
He listened, interrupting with chuckles and exclamations. When I
had finished he seized my hand and wrung it.

"By the everlastin'!" he exclaimed, "that was great! I say again,
you're all right, Ros Paine. Even _I_ swallered that Development
Company, hook, line, and sinker. But YOU saw through it!"

"I tell you this," I said, "so that you will understand I have no
intention of backing water."

"I know you ain't. Knew it afore and now I know it better. But I
can't understand what the Colton game is--and there is a game,
sure. That daughter of his, now--she may be in it or she may not.
She's pretty and I will give in that she's folksy and sociable with
us natives; it's surprisin', considerin' her bringin' up. Nellie
and Matildy like her, Nellie especial. They're real chummy, as you
might say. Talk and talk, just as easy and common as you and I
this minute. I've heard 'em two or three times at my house when
they thought I wasn't listenin' and twice out of the three they was
talkin' about you."

"About ME?" I repeated.

"Yes. I don't wonder you're surprised. I was myself. Asked
Nellie about it and she just laughed. Said you was the principal
object of interest in town just now, which is more or less true.
But it makes me suspicious, all the same. Why should a girl like
that Colton one talk about a feller like you? You're as fur apart,
fur's anything in common is concerned, as molasses is from vinegar.
Ain't that so?"

It was so, of course, but he need not have been so brutally frank
in telling me. However, I nodded and admitted that he was right.

"Yes," he said. "A blind horse could see there was no sensible,
open and above-board reason for HER bein' interested in YOU. So
there's another reason, the way I look at it, and that's why I'd be
mighty careful, mighty careful, Ros. Her pa's got a new trick up
his sleeve and she's helpin' him play it, that's my notion. So be
careful, won't you."

"I'll be careful," said I. I knew, as well as I knew my real name--
which he did not--that Mabel Colton was not helping her father
play any tricks. I had seen enough of her to be certain she was
not tricky. And, besides, if she were in sympathy with her parent,
why had she given me the hint which put me on the trail of the
Development Company? Why had she given me the hint at all? That
was the real riddle, and I had not, as yet, hit upon a plausible
answer. Those I had hit upon were ridiculous and impossible, and I
put them from my mind. But she was not tricky, that I knew.

Captain Jed changed the subject and we talked of Nellie's wedding,
which was to take place in a month. The captain was full of
various emotions, regret at losing his daughter and joy because of
her getting such a good husband. His last words were these:

"Ros," he said, "be careful, for my sake full as much as yours.
This Lane business and Nellie's gettin' married have sort of
possessed me, same as the evil spirits did the swine, in scriptur'.
I lay awake nights fussin' for fear the marriage won't turn out
happy or for fear you'll sell the Lane after all. And one's just
as likely to happen as t'other--which means they're both impossible,
I cal'late. But look out for that Colton girl, whatever else you
do. She's a good deal better lookin' than her dad, but she's just
as dangerous. You mark my words, son, the feller that plays with
fire takes chances. So don't be TOO sociable with any of the
tribe."

And the very next afternoon the dangerous person herself called and
she and I spent an hour in Mother's room, where the three of us
chatted like old friends. She had the rare power of making one
forget self and personal worries and I could readily understand why
Mother had been so completely won by her. She was bright and
cheery and sympathetic. Here there was no trace of the pride of
class and the arrogance which had caused me to hate her so heartily
at first. It seemed almost as if she had set herself the task of
making me like her in spite of my prejudices. My reason told me
that this could not be; it was merely her fancy for Mother which
caused her to notice me at all; she had as much as said so more
than once. But I did like her; I acknowledged it in my thoughts;
and, after she had gone, the room, with its drawn shades, seemed
doubly dark and gloomy. Mother was silent for a few minutes and I,
too, said nothing. Then:

"She is a wonderful girl, isn't she, Roscoe," said Mother.

She was altogether too wonderful, that was the trouble. A girl
like her had no place in our lives. I went out for a walk and a
smoke by the bluff edge; and, almost before I knew it, I found
myself standing at the border of the grove, looking at the great
house and trying to guess which was her room and if she was there
and of what or whom she might be thinking just then. "Mark my
words, son," Captain Jed had declared, "the feller that plays with
fire takes chances."

I turned on my heel and set out for home. I would take no chances.
I must not play with fire, even though the flames had, for the
moment, dazzled me. I had called myself a fool many times in the
past few years, but I would not be so great a fool as that.

CHAPTER XV

So I resolved, more resolutely than ever, to keep out of her way,
to see as little of her as possible! and, as had happened before to
similar resolutions of mine with which she was concerned, this one
was rendered non-effective, through no fault of my own, almost as
soon as it was made. For on Saturday afternoon, as I approached
the Colton wharf, laden with bait and rods for the fishing
excursion in the Colton boat, I saw her standing there beside her
father, waiting for me.

"We've got a passenger, Paine," said "Big Jim." "You've met her
before, I believe--on the water and in it. No objections to my
daughter's going along, have you?"

What could I say; except to announce delight at the addition to our
party? Perhaps I did not say it as heartily as I might, for, Miss
Colton, who was regarding me with a mischievous smile, observed
demurely:

"I am sure he must be delighted, Father. Mr. Paine knows I am very
fond of fishing; don't you, Mr. Paine?"

"Yes; oh, yes, of course," I stammered.

"He does, eh!" Her father seemed surprised. "How did he find that
out?"

I thought the question was addressed to her, so I did not answer.
She seemed to think otherwise, for she said:

"Did you hear, Mr. Paine? Father asks how you knew I was fond of
fishing."

"Why--er--you told me so, Miss Colton," I replied. If she had not
related her Seabury Pond experience to her parents I did not
propose to be trapped into doing so. She laughed merrily.

"Did I?" she asked. "Yes, I believe I did."

Mr. Colton looked at us, each in turn.

"Humph!" he observed; "I don't seem to be aboard this train.
What's the joke?"

She saved me the problem of inventing a satisfactory answer.

"Oh, it's a little joke of Mr. Paine's and my own," she explained.
"I'll tell you about it by and by, Father. It would take too long
to tell now. He saved my life once more, that's all."

"Oh! that's all! Humph! And you did not think a trifle like that
worth mentioning to me, I suppose. Would you mind telling me what
it was he saved you from this time?"

"From starvation. I was a famished wayfarer and he took me in.
There, Daddy, don't puzzle your poor brain any longer. It is all
right and I'll tell you all about it when we get home. Now I am
sure we should be starting if we are to have any fishing at all.
Shall we cast off, Mr.--that is, Captain Paine?"

That fishing trip was not a huge success if judged solely by the
size of the catch. The weakfish were not hungry or we did not
tempt them with bait to their taste that day. We got a half dozen,
of which I caught three, Miss Colton two, and her father but one.
His, however, was a big one, much the biggest of the six, and he
had a glorious time landing it. He fished as he appeared to do
everything else, with intense earnestness and determination. He
evidently considered the struggle a sort of personal disagreement
between the fish and himself and, as usual, intended to have his
way. He succeeded after a while, and announced that he had not
enjoyed anything as much since arriving in Denboro.

His daughter also seemed to be enjoying herself. She was quite as
good a fisher as her father, and, when the sport was over, and we
reeled in our lines preparatory to starting for home, rallied him
not a little at having been the least successful of the party. He
took her teasing good-naturedly.

"You think it is quite a feat to get the better of your old dad,
don't you, my lady," he observed.

"Of course I do. It is, isn't it?"

He chuckled. "Well, maybe you're right," he admitted. "You do it
oftener than any one else, that is certain. Paine, you might take
lessons from her, if you are still hoping to keep up your end in
the little fight you and I have on hand."

She turned to me and smiled. Her graceful head was silhouetted
against the red glow of the sunset and a loosened strand of her
hair waved in the light breeze.

"I think Mr. Paine does not need lessons from any one," she said.
"He seems to be holding his own very well."

"But he's frightened, all the same. Come, Paine, own up now. You
know you are frightened, don't you?"

"Not very," I answered, truthfully.

"So? Then you aren't as sensible as you ought to be. A wise man
knows when to be scared. Let's make a little bet on it. I'll bet
you two to one that I'll own that land of yours inside of six
months."

I shook my head. "I never bet on certainties," I declared. "I
should be ashamed to collect my winnings."

This seemed to amuse them both, for they both laughed.

"Father," said Miss Colton, "I am afraid you don't learn by
experience. You have lost one bet already, you know."

"That's so. And I haven't paid it yet, either. I must, or you'll
be telling every one that I am a poor sport. Paine, this young
lady bet me a new pipe against a box of gloves that you wouldn't--"

"Father," broke in the young lady, herself, "stop."

"Oh, all right, all right. Just as you say. But I tell you this,
Paine; SHE hasn't any scruples against betting on certainties."

She was leaning against the cockpit rail, looking forward, and I
could not see her face. She spoke without turning.

"You thought yours was the certainty," she said. "You warned me
that I was sure to lose."

"Did I? Well, you may, even yet. On the whole, I think I'll wait
a while before buying those gloves. Remember, there was no time
limit. When you said that--"

"Father," more firmly, "please be quiet. You have said quite
enough. Mr. Paine is not likely to be interested in the family
gambling."

I was interested in this particular "gamble." The wager had,
obviously, something to do with me. I suppose I should have felt
flattered at being made the subject of a bet in such select
circles, but I did not. I had not been informed as to the details
of that bet.

There was nothing more said about it at the time and my passengers
talked of other things as we sailed home before the fast dying
breeze. It died almost altogether as we passed the lighthouse at
Crow Point and entered the bay and, for an hour, we barely held our
own against the tide. The sun set, twilight came, and the stars
appeared one by one. Colton, lying at full length on the deck
forward of the cockpit, smoked in lazy enjoyment. His only remark
in ten minutes was to the effect that his wife had probably drowned
us all, in her mind, a dozen times over by now.

His daughter, sitting by the rail and looking out over the smooth,
darkly glimmering water, bade him be quiet.

"You must not talk," she said. "This is the most wonderful night I
ever experienced. How still it is! You can hear every sound.
Hark!"

From the dusk, to port, came the clear strokes of a church bell
striking eight.

"That is the clock at the Methodist Church, isn't it?" asked Miss
Colton.

"Yes," said I.

"The church where the strawberry festival was held?"

"Yes."

Colton struck a match to relight his cigar.

"Shouldn't think that would be a pleasant reminder to either of
you," he observed. "I am mighty sure it wasn't to me."

Miss Colton did not answer, nor did I.

The breeze sprang up again soon after, from a different quarter
this time, but the tide had ebbed so far that I was obliged to make
the detour around the end of the flat upon which Victor had
grounded the dingy. "Big Jim" raised himself on his elbow.

"Hello!" he exclaimed, "here's another joyful spot. Mabel, it was
along here somewhere that Paine acquired the habit of carrying you
about like a bundle. It must have been a picturesque performance.
Wish I might have seen it."

He laughed heartily.

"Father," said the young lady, coldly, "don't be silly--please."

He chuckled and lay down again, and no one spoke during the rest of
the voyage. It was after nine when I brought the boat up to the
wharf, made her fast, and lowered and furled the sail.

"Better come up to the house with us and have a bit to eat, Paine,"
urged Colton. "You must be hungry; I know I am."

"Oh, no, thank you," said I. "Supper will be waiting for me at
home."

"Glad to have you, if you'll come. Tell him to come, Mabel."

Miss Colton's invitation was not over-cordial.

"I presume Mr. Paine knows what is best for him to do," she said.
"Of course we shall be glad to have him, if he will come."

I declined, and, after thanking me for the sail and the pleasure of
the fishing trip, they left me, Colton carrying his big squiteague
by the gills, its tail slapping his leg as he climbed the bluff. A
moment later I followed.

The night was, as my feminine passenger had said, wonderfully
quiet, and sounds carried a long way. As I reached the juncture of
the path and the Lane I heard a voice which I recognized as Mrs.
Colton's. She was evidently standing on the veranda of the big
house and I heard every word distinctly.

"You are so unthinking, James! You and Mabel have no regard for my
feelings at all. I have been worried almost to death. Do you
realize the time? I warned you against trusting yourself to the
care of that common FELLOW--"

The "fellow" heard no more. He did not wish to. He was tramping
heavily through the dew-soaked undergrowth. He needed now no
counsel against "playing with fire." The cutting contempt of Mrs.
James W. Colton's remark was fire-extinguisher sufficient for that
night.

Miss Colton and I met again at the door of the bank a day or two
later, just at closing time. Sam Wheeler had already gone and I
left George at his desk, poring over papers and busily figuring.
He was working over time much of late and explained his industry by
the fact of his approaching marriage and his desire to make things
easy for me to handle while he was on his brief wedding trip. I
was not much alarmed by the prospect. He was to be gone but a week
and I had become sufficiently familiar with the routine to feel
confident in assuming the responsibility. Small, my predecessor,
had a brother who had formerly been employed in the bank and was
now out of work, and he was coming in to help during the cashier's
absence. I was not worried by the prospect of being left in
charge, but I was worried about George. He, so it seemed to me,
had grown pale and thin. Also he was nervously irritable and not
at all like his usual good-natured self. I tried to joke him into
better humor, but he did not respond to my jokes. He seemed, too,
to realize that his odd behavior was noticeable, for he said:

"Don't mind my crankiness, Ros. I've got so much on my mind that
I'd be mean to my old grandmother, if I had one, I guess likely.
Don't let my meanness trouble you; it isn't worth trouble."

I laughed. "George," I said, "if I ever dreamed of such a thing as
getting married myself, you would scare me out of it. You ought to
be a happy man, and act like one; instead you act as if you were
about to be jailed."

He caught his breath with a sort of gasp. Then, after a pause and
without looking up, he asked slowly:

"Jailed? What in the world made you say that, Ros?"

"I said it because you act as if you were bound for state's prison
instead of the matrimonial altar. George, what IS troubling you?"

"Troubling me? Why--why, nothing special, of course. Catching up
with my work here makes me nervous and--and kind of absent-minded,
I guess. Act absent-minded, don't I?"

He did, there was no doubt of that, but I did not believe it was
his work which caused the absent-mindedness.

"If there is any trouble, George," I said, earnestly; "if you're in
any difficulty, personally, I shall be very glad to help you, if I
can. I mean that."

For a moment I thought he hesitated. Then he shook his head.

"I know you mean it, Ros," he answered. "I'm much obliged to you,
too. But there's nothing to help me with. I'm just nervous and
tired, that's all."

I did not believe it, but I felt that I had said all I could,
considering his attitude. I bade him good night and left the
building. As I came down the steps Miss Colton was just crossing
the road from Eldredge's store, a good sized brown paper parcel in
her hand.

Ever since the day when Captain Jed had given me his warning I had
been strengthening my resolution. The remark of Mrs. Colton's
which I had overheard on the night of the fishing trip, although it
revealed to me, as I believed, my real standing in the minds of my
neighbors, whatever they might pretend when in my company, was,
after all, only a minor detail. I knew that I must break off my
acquaintance with this girl. By all that was sensible and sane it
must be broken off. I must not, for my own sake, continue to meet
her, to see her and speak with her. No; I would avoid her if I
could, but, at all events, I would break off the association, even
if I were obliged to offend her, deliberately offend her, to
accomplish my purpose. I swore it; and then I swore at myself for
being so weak-minded as to need to swear. That I should be afraid
of a girl, a mere girl, ten years younger than I, who, as the
casual pastime of an idle summer, had chosen to pretend an interest
in me! I was not afraid of her, of course; I was afraid of myself.
Not that I was in danger of falling in love with her--that idea was
too ridiculous to be even funny. But she was becoming a disturbing
influence in my life--that was it, a disturbing influence--and I
must not permit myself to be disturbed.

So now, as I saw the disturbing influence crossing the road in my
direction, my first thought was to retreat to the bank. But it was
too late to retreat; she had seen me, and she bowed pleasantly as
she approached.

"Good afternoon," she said.

I bowed and admitted that the afternoon was a good one, conscious
as I did so that Sim Eldredge had followed her to the door of his
store and was regarding us with marked interest.

She exhibited the package. "I am acting as my own errand boy, you
see," she said, smiling. "It was such a beautiful day that I
refused to send any one for this, or even to ride. I did not
realize that a few yards of muslin would make such a bundle. Now I
must carry it, I suppose, in spite of appearances."

I believed I saw an opportunity to escape.

"I am going directly home," I said. "Let me carry it down for you.
I will send it over to your house by Lute."

"Oh, no thank you. I could not think of troubling Mr. Rogers. But
do you really want to carry it? You may, for a while. We will
take turns. I am going directly home, too; and we will walk down
together. Unless, of course, you are in a hurry."

I think it was the expression of my face which led her to add the
last sentence. If I had had time to think, to summon my resolution,
it is possible--yes, it is possible that I should have declared
myself to be in a hurry and gone on alone. But she had caught me
unawares and resolution was wanting. I announced that I was in no
hurry at all, and took the parcel.

We walked on together, she chatting easily, and I pretending to
listen, although aware that our progress was watched by eager eyes
and commented upon and exclaimed over by many tongues. The drawn
shades of parlor windows moved significantly as we passed and, as
we turned into the Lower Road, I glanced over my shoulder and saw
Sim Eldredge and his clerk and Thoph Newcomb and Alvin Baker on the
store platform, staring after us. As if this audience was not
sufficient, and to make the affair complete, we met Captain Dean
strutting importantly on his way to the post-office. He bowed and
said "Afternoon," but the look he gave me was significant. There
was surprise in it, and distrust. I knew I should have to do more
explaining at our next meeting. And I knew, too, or could guess,
what was being said that very moment at the store, and of the
surmising and theorizing and strengthening of suspicions which
would go on at a dozen supper tables that evening.

My companion, however, appeared to be quite unconscious of all
this. That I might be suspected and misjudged because she had
chanced to prefer my company to a walk home alone did not,
evidently, occur to her. There was no reason why it should, of
course; she was not in the position where the opinion or suspicions
of Denboro's inhabitants need concern her in the least. But I,
angry at Captain Jed for his look and with Sim Eldredge and his
companions for their impudent stares and the trouble I knew their
gossipy tongues would make for me, was gloomy and resentful.

She did most of the talking and I walked beside her, putting in a
word occasionally and doing my best to appear as unconcerned as she
really was. We crossed Elnathan Mullet's bridge and continued down
the Shore Lane. Suddenly I was aware that she had not spoken for
some minutes.

"Eh? Yes, Miss Colton; what is it?" I stammered. Then I realized
that we were standing beside the granite posts marking the entrance
to the Colton grounds. I had been so wrapped in my unpleasant
thoughts and forebodings that we had reached our journey's end
without my noticing it.

"Well!" I exclaimed, and then added the brilliant observation, "We
are here, aren't we."

"We are," she said, dryly. "Didn't you know it?"

"Why, I had not realized. The walk has seemed so short."

"Yes, I'm sure it must. I think you have spoken exactly six words
in the last five minutes. Will you come in?"

"Oh no; no, thank you."

"Why not? Father is in and will be glad to see you."

"I--I must be getting on toward home. Supper will be ready."

She bit her lip. "Far be it from me to criticize your domestic
arrangements, Mr. Paine," she said, "but it does seem to me that
your housekeeper serves meals at odd hours. It is only a few
minutes after four, by my watch."

She had me at a disadvantage. I imagined I must have appeared
embarrassed. I know I felt that way.

"I did not realize . . . I thought it much later," I stammered.

"Then you will come in? Father will like to discuss the fishing
with you, I know. He has talked of little but his wonderful
weakfish ever since he caught it."

"No, thank you, Miss Colton. Really, I must not stop."

She took the parcel from my hands.

"Very well," she said, indifferently; "as you please. I thank you
for your kindness in walking down with me. Good afternoon, Mr.
Paine."

She turned away. Here was the opportunity I had been waiting for,
the opportunity of breaking off our acquaintance. If I knew
anything I knew the tone of that "Good afternoon" meant that, for
some reason or other, she was offended, just as I had been certain
I wished her to be. Here was the opportunity, Heaven sent, to rid
my life of its disturbing influence. Just what I had prayed for
had come to pass.

And so, to prove the sincerity of my prayers and the worth of my
high resolve, I--called her back.

"Miss Colton," I said.

She, apparently, did not hear me, so I called again.

"Miss Colton."

"Yes?"

"I seem somehow or other to have offended you." And even as I said
it I realized the completeness of the back-down, realized it and
blushed. I was ashamed of my weakness. Yet when she asked me to
repeat my words I did so.

"You spoke to me?" she said, coldly.

"I--I said I had not meant to offend you."

"Why should you imagine that I am offended, pray? You seem to
think other people must necessarily regard you as seriously as you
do yourself. I am not offended."

"But you are."

"Very well; then I am. We won't argue the matter; it is scarcely
worth argument, is it?"

This observation called for no answer in particular, at least I
could not think of one. While I was groping for a word she spoke
again.

"Don't let me detain you, Mr. Paine," she said. "I am sure your--
supper, was it?--must be waiting."

"Miss Colton, you--you seem to resent my not accepting your
invitation to visit your father. I assure you I--I should be very
glad to call upon him."

"Thank you. I will tell him so. He will be grateful, doubtless.
Your condescension is overwhelming, Mr. Paine."

"Miss Colton, everything I say seems to be wrong this afternoon. I
don't know what I have done. Twice you have spoken of my
condescension."

Her foot was beginning to pat the grass. I recognized the battle
signal, but I kept on.

"I don't understand what you mean by condescension," I said.

"Don't you, indeed? You are very dense all at once, Mr. Paine."

"Possibly. But I don't understand."

For an instant she hesitated. Then she turned on me with a gust of
fierce impatience which took my breath away. Her eyes flashed.

"You do," she declared. "You do understand, I am not blind. Do
you suppose I could not see that you wished to avoid me when I met
you at the bank just now? That my company was neither welcome nor
desired? That you accepted my suggestion of walking down together
merely because you could think of no excuse for declining?"

This was a staggerer. And the worst of it was its truth.

"Miss Colton," I faltered, "I can't understand what you mean. I--"

"You do understand. And please," with a scornful laugh, "oh,
PLEASE understand that I am not troubled because of THAT. Your
charming and cultivated society is not indispensable to my
happiness, Mr. Paine, strange as that may appear to you. Really,"
with cutting contempt, "it is not."

"That I quite understand, Miss Colton," I said, "but--"

"But you are like every one else in this horrid, narrow, bigoted
place. Don't you suppose that I see it everywhere I go! Every one
here hates us--every one. We are intruders; we are not wanted
here, and you all take pains to make us feel as uncomfortable as
you can. Oh, you are all snobs--all of you."

I actually gasped.

"Snobs!" I repeated. "We--snobs?"

"Yes. That is exactly what you are. When Father came here he
meant to be a citizen, a good citizen, of the town. He had
intended to do all sorts of things to help the village and the
people in it. He and I discussed ever so many plans for doing good
here. And we wanted to be friendly with every one. But how have
you treated us! No one comes to see us. We are avoided as if we
had the small-pox. The majority of people scarcely speak to us on
the street. I am so lonely and--"

She stopped. I had never seen her so agitated. As for me,
astonishment is much too mild a term to use in describing my
feelings. That these people, these millionaires and aristocrats
should feel that they had been avoided and slighted, that we
Denboroites were the snobs, that THEY should be lonely because no
one, or almost no one, came to call upon them--this was too much
for my bewildered brain to grasp all at once.

The young lady went on.

"And you!" she exclaimed. "You are as bad as the rest. Father has
called upon you several times. I have called on your mother.
Father and I have tried to be friendly and neighborly. Not that we
are lacking in friends. We," haughtily, "are not obliged to BEG
for friendship. But we felt it our duty to--"

I interrupted. There is a limit to forbearance and I considered
that limit reached.

"Miss Colton," I declared, "you are talking nonsense. Considering
the manner in which your father treated me when we first met, I--"

"How did you treat him? How did you treat Mr. Carver and me when
you first met us in the auto? You insulted us. It was plain
enough then that you hated us."

"I--why, Miss Colton, I did not know who you were."

"Indeed! Would it have made any difference if you had known? I
doubt it. No, you are like the rest of the people here. Because
we have come from the city you have chosen to be as envious and
petty and disagreeable as you can. Even Nellie Dean, whom I know
better than any one here, has never returned my call. There is a
concerted plan to make us feel we are neither welcome nor wanted.
Very well," disdainfully, "we know it. I, for one, shall not force
my presence upon any one of you again. And it is probable that I
shall manage to exist even without the delights of Denboro society.
Good-by, Mr. Paine."

"But, Miss Colton--"

"Good-by."

"Miss Colton, listen to me. You are wrong, all wrong, I tell you.
There is no plan or plot to make you feel uncomfortable. We are
plain village people here, and you are wealthy and have been used
to associating with those of your class. Every one in Denboro knew
that when you came, and they have been shy of intruding where they
might not be welcome. Then there was that matter of the Lane
here."

"Oh, that precious Lane! I wish I had never seen it."

"I have wished that a number of times in the past few months. But
it is here and the question overshadows everything else in the
village just now. It does not seem of much importance to you,
perhaps; perhaps it is not so very important to me; but--"

Again she interrupted me.

"I think it is important enough to make you forget--ordinary
courtesy," she declared. "Yes, courtesy. DON'T look at me like
that! You know what I mean. As I told you before, I am not blind.
Do credit me with some intelligence. All the way during this
cheerful walk of ours you scarcely spoke a word. Did you suppose I
did not know what was troubling you? I saw how that Captain Dean
looked at you. I saw those people staring from the post-office
door. I knew what you were afraid of their saying: that you are
altogether too companionable with Father and me; that you intend
selling the land to us, after all. That is what you thought they
would say and you were afraid--AFRAID of their gossip. Oh, it is
humiliating! And, for a time, I really thought you were different
from the rest and above such things."

I began to feel as if I were once more a small boy receiving a
lecture from the governess.

"I am not at all afraid of them, Miss Colton," I protested.

"You are. Why? Your conscience is clear, isn't it? You don't
intend selling out to my father?"

"Certainly not."

"Then why should you care what people like that may think? Oh, you
weary me! I admired you for your independence. There are few
persons with the courage to face my father as you have done and I
admired you for it. I would not have had you sell us the land for
ANYTHING."

"You would not?" I gasped.

"Certainly not! I have been on your side all the time. If you had
sold I should have thought you, like all the rest, holding back
merely for a higher price. I respected you for the fight you were
making. You must have known it. If I had not why do you suppose I
gave you that hint about the Development Company?"

"Goodness knows!" I exclaimed, devoutly.

"And I was sure you could not be bribed by an offer of a position
in Father's office. It was not really a bribe--Father has, for
some unexplainable reason, taken a fancy to you--but I knew you
would believe it to be bribery. That is why I was so positive in
telling him that you would not accept. And now you--oh, when I
think of how I have LOWERED myself! How I have stooped to . . .
But there! I am sure that supper of yours must be waiting. Pray
condescend to convey my regrets to the faithful--what is her name?
Odd that I should forget a name like THAT. Oh, yes! Dorinda!--Pray
convey my regrets to the faithful Dorinda for being unwittingly the
cause of the delay, and assure her that the offense will NOT be
repeated. Good-by, Mr. Paine."

She walked off, between the granite posts and along the curved
drive. This time I made no attempt to call her back. The storm
had burst so unexpectedly and had developed into such a hurricane
that I had had time to do little more than bend my head before it.
But I had had time enough to grow angry. I would not have called
her back then for the world. She had insulted me, not once only,
but again and again. I stood and watched her go on her way, and
then I turned and went on my own.

The parting had come. The acquaintance was broken off; not precisely
as I had intended it to be broken, but broken, nevertheless, and
ended for good and all. I was glad of it. There would be no more
fishing excursions, no more gifts of flowers and books, no more
charity calls. The "common fellow" was free from the disturbing
influence and he was glad of it--heartily glad of it.

Yet his gladness was not as apparent to others as it should, by
all that was consistent, have been. Lute, evidently, observed no
traces of transcendent happiness, when I encountered him in the
back yard, beside the woodpile, sharpening the kindling hatchet
with a whetstone, a process peculiarly satisfying to his
temperament because it took such a long time to achieve a
noticeable result.

"Hello, Ros!" he hailed. "Why! what ails you?"

"Ails me?" I repeated, crossly. "Nothing ails me, of course."

"Well, I'm glad to hear it. You look as if you'd lost your last
friend."

"I haven't lost any friends. Far from it."

"Nobody's dead, then?"

"No. Though I could find some who are half dead without trying
very hard."

More perfectly good sarcasm wasted. Lute inquired eagerly if I
meant old Mrs. Lobelia Glover. "I heard yesterday she was pretty
feeble," he added. "'Tain't to be expected she'll last a long
spell, at her age. Doctor Quimby says she had a spine in her back
for twenty years."

I made no comment upon poor Mrs. Glover's surprising affliction. I
merely grunted and went into the house. Dorinda looked at me
curiously.

"What's the trouble?" she asked.

"Trouble! There isn't any trouble. You and Lute seem to be
looking for trouble."

"Don't have to look far to find it, in this world. Anything wrong
at the bank?"

"No."

"Um-hm. Settin' so long on the fence make you uneasy? I told you
the pickets would wear through if you roosted on 'em too long."

"There is nothing the matter, I tell you. How is Mother?"

"She ain't any wuss. If 'twan't an impossibility I'd say she was
better the last month than I'd seen her since she was took. Nellie
Dean called on her this afternoon."

"Humph! I should think a next week's bride would be too busy to
call on any one except possibly the dressmaker."

"Um-hm. Well, Nellie looks as if she'd been callin' on the
dressmaker pretty often. Anyhow she looked worried and Olindy
Cahoon's dressmakin' gabble is enough to worry anybody. She left a
note for you."

"Who? Olinda?"

"Land sakes! no! What would Olindy be doin' down here? There
ain't any brides to dress in this house, or bridegrooms either
unless you're cal'latin' to be one, or Lute turns Mormon. That
last notion ain't such a bad one," with a dry smile. "Another wife
or two to help me take care of him would come in handy."

"Who did leave the note for me, then?"

"Nellie, of course. She wanted me to be sure you got it.
Somethin' about that wonderful weddin', I s'pose. I left it
upstairs on your bureau."

I found the note and put it in my pocket to read later on. I did
not feel like reading it then. I did not feel like doing anything
or seeing any one; yet least of all did I feel like being alone.
For if I was alone I should think, and I did not want to think. I
prowled about my room for a time and then went down and spent a
short time with Mother. Her first question was concerning my day
at the bank, and her second if I had seen any of the Coltons
recently. "I rather hoped Miss Mabel would come to see me to-day,"
she added. "I look forward to her visits so, I think she's a real
friend of ours, Roscoe. I know you don't, dear, or you try to
believe you do not; but she is--I am convinced of it. I wonder if
she will come to-morrow."

I could have put a stop to her wondering on that subject, but I was
in no mood to do it then. I went into the dining-room. Dorinda
warned me not to go far from the house because supper would be ready
in a few minutes. The word "supper" reminded me of my unfortunate
choice of an excuse and the sarcastic reference to our odd domestic
arrangements; which reminded me, in its turn, of other sarcasms
which had followed it. My "charming and cultivated society" was not
necessary to her happiness . . . When she thought of how she had
lowered herself . . . Other people did not necessarily regard me as
seriously as I did myself . . . And so on . . . until Dorinda
called me in to sit at the table, and pretend to eat while she and
Lute commented on my lack of appetite and my absent-mindedness.

It was eight o'clock, and I had gone up to my room to escape from
their solicitude and pointed questioning, when I happened to think
of Nellie's note. I had not been curious concerning its contents,
for, as I had agreed to act as best man at the wedding, I assumed,
as Dorinda had done, that she had written on that, to her, all-
important topic. I took the note from my pocket and tore open the
envelope.

Nellie had not written about the wedding. Her letter was a long
one, evidently written in great agitation and with words blotted
and underscored. Its subject was the man she loved, George Taylor.
She was so anxious about him. Did I remember, that night when my
mother was ill, how she had spoken of him to me and asked if I had
noticed how troubled and worried he seemed of late?

"And, Roscoe," she wrote, "I have noticed it more and more since
then. He IS in trouble. There is something on his mind, something
that he will not tell me and that I can see is worrying him
dreadfully. He is not like himself at all. I KNOW something is
wrong, and I cannot find out what it is. I want to help him SO
much. Oh, please, Roscoe, don't think this is just a foolish
girl's imagination, and does not amount to anything. It does. I
know it does. You are his best friend. Can't YOU find out what is
troubling him and help him, for my sake? I have meant to speak to
you about this ever so many times, but I seldom see you alone and I
could not speak while he was with me. So I decided to write this
letter. If you will try, just TRY to find out what ails him and
help him I shall never, NEVER forget your kindness. Perhaps he
does not want to marry me. Perhaps he does not care for me as much
as he thought he did and will not tell me because he does not want
me to feel bad. If that is it tell him not to mind my feelings at
all. I want him to be happy. If it would make him happier to have
me give him up I will do it, even though I shall pray to die right
away. Oh can't you help him and me, Roscoe? Please, PLEASE try.
A girl ought to be perfectly happy who is going to be married. And
I am so miserable. I can't tell Mother and Father because they
would not believe me. They would think I just imagined it all.
But YOU won't think that, will you? You will see him and try to
help him, for my sake."

And so on, eight closely written pages, ending with another plea to
me to see "poor George" and help him, and begging me to "burn this
letter, because I should be so ashamed to have any one else see
it."

It was a pitiful letter and, even in the frame of mind I was then
in, disgusted with humanity and hating the entire feminine sex, I
could not help feeling sorry for Nellie Dean. Of course I was
surprised at receiving such a letter and I believed, just as she
begged me not to believe, that the cause of her distress and
anxiety was more imaginary than real. But that something was
troubling George Taylor I had felt certain for a good while. The
idea that he did not love Nellie I knew was preposterous. That was
not it. There was something else, but what I could not imagine. I
wanted to help the girl if I could, but how could I ask George to
tell me his secrets? I, with a secret of my own.

After pondering for some time I decided to walk up to George's
boarding place and talk with him. Nothing would come of the
interview, probably, but I might as well do that as anything else.
I must do something, something besides sit in that room and see
mocking faces in every corner, faces with dark eyes and scornful
lips which told me that my charming and cultivated society was not
necessary to their happiness.

Taylor rented the upper floor of a house a quarter of a mile from
the bank. His housekeeper answered my ring and informed me that
her employer had not yet come home.

"He did not even come home for supper," she said. "Stayed over to
Nellie's probably. You'll most likely find him there."

But I was pretty certain he was not at the Deans', for as I passed
their house, I noticed the windows were dark, indicating that the
family, like most of respectable Denboro, had already retired. I
walked on to the Corners. Eldredge's store was closed, but the
billiard room was radiant and noisy. I could hear Tim Hallet's
voice urging some one to take a new cue, "'cause that one ain't
pocketed many balls yet."

I looked across at the bank. The front portion of it was black
enough, but the window of the directors' room was alight. I had
located the object of my search; the cashier was there, working
overtime, as he did so often nowadays.

I had my key in my pocket and I unlocked the big door and entered
quietly. The door of the directors' room was open a little way and
I tiptoed over and peeped in through the crack. Taylor was seated
in a chair beside the big table, his elbows upon the table and his
head in his hands. As I stood there, watching him, he took his
hands away and I saw his face. Upon it was an expression of abject
misery and utter despair. I opened the door and entered.

He heard the sound of the opening door and leaped to his feet. His
chair fell backward on the floor with a clatter, but he paid no
attention to it.

"Good God!" he cried, wildly. "Who's that?"

He was deathly pale and trembling violently. His appearance
startled and alarmed me.

"It's all right," I said, hastily. "It is I--Paine. I saw the
light and knew you must be here. What ails you? What IS the
matter?"

For a moment he stood there staring. Then he turned and picked up
the fallen chair.

"Oh, it's you, Ros, is it?" he faltered. "I--I--Lord, how you
scared me! I--I--"

"George! what IS the matter with you? For heaven's sake! stand up,
man!" He was swaying and I thought he was going to faint.
"George! George Taylor! Are you ill? I am going for the doctor."

"No, no! Stay where you are. I ain't sick. I'll be all right in
a minute. You--you scared me, creeping in that way. Sit down, sit
down."

He steadied himself with one hand on the table and with the other
reached to shut a drawer which had been open beside him. The
drawer was almost full of papers, and, lying upon those papers, was
a revolver.

CHAPTER XVI

Before he could close the drawer completely I caught his arm and
held it.

"George," I cried, "George, what is the matter? Tell me; you must
tell me."

He tried to pull his arm free. Finding that I would not let him do
this he gave up the attempt and, with a poor attempt at a laugh,
answered, "Matter? Why, nothing is the matter. I am tired and
nervous, same as I've told you I've been for the last two or three
months, and you scared me, tiptoeing in like a sneak thief, this
time of night."

"Time of night! It is but a little after nine. What is the matter
with you?"

"Nothing is the matter, I tell you. Let go of my arm, Ros. What
do you mean by holding on to me like this?"

"What do YOU mean, George? What does THAT mean?"

I pointed to the drawer. He looked and, with a sudden effort,
jerked his arm free and closed the drawer.

"That?" with a forced laugh. "Oh, that's nothing. It was late and
I was alone here, so--"

"I know better. George, you're frightening us all. Don't you
suppose we can see that something is wrong with you? I have seen
it ever since I came here to work. You are worrying your friends.
You worry me. Give us a chance to help you. Give ME a chance.
You owe me that. Tell me your trouble and I'll pull you out of it;
see if I don't."

My confidence was, of course, only pretence, but my earnestness had
some effect. He looked at me wistfully, and shook his head.

"Nobody can pull me out," he said. "You're a good fellow to want
to help, but you can't. There ain't any trouble. I'm just
nervous--"

"I know better. You're lying, George. Yes, you are; you're
lying."

"Humph! You're pretty plain spoken, Ros Paine. There ain't many
people I'd take that from."

"You'll take it from me, because you can't help it and because you
know it is true. Come, George; come. You have been a friend to
me; the only real friend I have had in years. I have been looking
for a chance to get even for what you have done for me. Maybe here
is the chance. Let me help you. I will."

He was wavering; I could see it. But again he shook his head.

"Nobody can help me," he said.

"George, for my sake--well, then, if not for my sake or your own,
then for Nellie's, give me a chance. You aren't treating her
right, George. You should think of her. You--"

"Stop! Damn you, Ros Paine! what right have you to--"

"The right of a friend, her friend and yours. You're frightening
the poor girl to death. She is beginning to be afraid you don't
care for her."

"I? I don't care for HER? I don't-- Oh, my God!"

To my utter amazement he began to laugh. And then, all at once,
his laughter ceased, he swayed, choked, and, suddenly collapsing in
the chair, dropped his head upon his arms on the table and sobbed,
sobs that shook him from head to heel.

For one strong, healthy, normal man to see another cry is a
disconcerting and uncomfortable experience. Masculine tears do not
flow easily and poor George, on the verge of hysterics, was a
pitiful and distressing spectacle. I was almost as completely
disorganized as he. I felt ashamed for him and ashamed of myself
for having seen him in such a condition. I wanted desperately to
help him and I did not know what to do, so beyond patting him on
the back and begging him repeatedly to brace up and not behave like
that, I did nothing. At last his sobs ceased and he was silent. I
had risen from my chair and now I stood there with a hand on his
shoulder; the ticking of the ancient eight-sided clock on the wall
sounded loud in the room.

Suddenly he sat up and threw off my hand.

"Well," he said, bitterly, "I'm a fine specimen of a man, ain't I.
Ain't you proud of me?"

"I am mighty sorry for you," I answered. "And I mean to help you."

"You can't."

"How do you know?"

"Because I do know, Ros," he turned and looked me straight in the
eye. "I am going to give you some good advice. Take it, for your
own sake. Clear out of here and leave me. Don't have anything
more to do with me. Clear out."

I did not move.

"Are you going to do as I tell you?" he demanded. "Mind, I'm
telling you this for your own good. Will you clear out and leave
me?"

I smiled. "Of course not," I answered.

"Don't be a fool. You can't afford to be my friend. Clear out and
leave me, do you hear?"

"I hear. Now, George, what is it?"

His fingers tapped the table. I could see he was making up his
mind.

"You want to know?" he said. "You won't be satisfied until you
do?"

"I have made that fairly plain, I hope. At least I've tried to."

His fist clenched and he struck the table.

"Then, by the Almighty, I'll tell you!" he cried, fiercely. "It'll
be all over the county in a week. You might as well know it now.
I'm a crook. I'm a thief. I've stolen money from this bank and I
can't pay it back because I haven't got it and can't get it. I'm a
crook, I tell you, and in a week or so it'll be the county jail for
mine. Unless--unless," with a significant glance at the drawer,
"something else happens to me in the meantime. There; now you
know. Are you satisfied? Are you happy because you've found out?"

I did not answer. To tell the truth I was not entirely overcome by
surprise at the disclosure. I had begun to suspect something of
the sort. Yet, now that my suspicions were confirmed, I was too
greatly shocked and horrified to speak at once.

"Well?" he sneered. "Now will you clear out and let me settle this
my own way?"

I pulled my chair forward and sat down.

"Tell me all about it, George," I said, as calmly as I could. "How
much is it?"

He stared at me aghast. "You won't go?" he cried. "You--you are
going to stick by me even--even--"

"There! there! pull yourself together, old fellow. We won't give
up the ship yet. How much is it? It can't be a great sum."

"It ain't. But, Ros--you--you can't--you mustn't be mixed up in
this. I shan't let you. Don't you see?"

I argued and pleaded and reasoned with him for what seemed a long
time before he would consent to tell me the whole story. And when
it was told there was nothing new or novel in it. The old tale of
an honest man who had not meant to go wrong, but, tempted by one of
those wiles of the devil, an "inside tip" on the stock market, had
bought heavily on margins, expecting to clear a handsome profit in
a short time. The stock was Louisville and Transcontinental and
the struggle for its control by certain big interests had made copy
for financial writers for nearly a year. George had bought at a
time when one syndicate had, so it believed, secured the control.

Then something went wrong in the deal and the shares began to
decline in value. He put up more margins and still more, but it
continued to decline. Finally under the spur of another "tip," the
last of his own savings having gone to the insatiate brokers, he
sent, to bolster his account and to save him from utter ruin, some
bonds belonging to the bank.

"Not much," he declared, "only about thirty-five hundred dollars'
worth, that's all. I never would have done it, Ros, but I was
wild, desperate, you see. Here I was, getting ready to be married;
Nellie and Cap'n Jed and the rest believing me to be comfortably
fixed. It's easy enough now to say that I ought to have gone to
her and told her. If I hadn't been certain that the market would
turn and I'd be all right in a week, I'd have done it. But I was
sure I'd be all right and I couldn't take the chance. I knew what
her father would say about her marrying a pauper, and I just
couldn't take the risk of losing her; I couldn't. She means more
to me than--than--oh, wait until your time comes! Wait until the
girl comes along that you care for more than the whole world. And
then see what you'd do. See what it would mean to give her up!
Just wait--wait and see!"

"Yes, yes," I put in, hastily. "I understand, George. But the
stock, Louisville and Transcontinental, how is it now?"

"Just the same. It is dead, practically speaking. It hasn't moved
half a point for six weeks. I've been expecting it would, but it
hasn't. It's all right; the value is there; I know it. If I could
only hang on and wait I could get my money back, part of it,
anyhow. But I can't. I can't wait. And the broker people have
got those bonds. Ros, I've been fighting this thing for weeks and
weeks. I ain't slept a night for years, or so it seems. And next
week--next WEEK I was to be married. My God! think of it!"

"Here, here! Don't do that," I urged. "Brace up. You and I must
work this out. Wasn't there any one you could go to? Anyone you
could borrow the money of? Thirty-five hundred isn't such a lot."

"Whom could I go to? I tried. Lord knows I tried! I did borrow a
thousand of Cap'n Elisha Warren; trumped up some excuse or other
and got that. But that was all he could let me have. And I know
he thought my asking for that was queer."

"Did you consider going straight to Cap'n Dean and--"

"Dean? Cap'n Jed? Her father? Oh, Ros, don't be a fool altogether!
I beg your pardon, old man! I don't mean it. You mustn't mind. I
ain't responsible for what I say just now. But I couldn't go to
Cap'n Jed. You know him. He's as straight and square and honest as
he is obstinate and cranky. If I went to him I couldn't tell him
the truth. And if I lied he'd suspect and want to know why I needed
to borrow money. And Nellie--don't you see? There's the real
awfulness of the whole thing. I couldn't go to her and tell her I
was a thief. I couldn't see her face when I told her. And yet
she's got to know it. She's got to know it!"

"But why? The stock may go up any day and then you could withdraw
part of your margin."

He struck the table with another blow. "The stock ain't moved for
six weeks, I tell you," he declared. "And, Ros," he leaned
forward, his haggard face working with emotion, "those bonds ain't
in our safe here, where they should be, and the bank examiner is
due here within the next four days. He's at Middleboro now. I
'phoned Bearse, the cashier there, this very forenoon on a matter
of business, and he happened to mention that the examiner was in
his bank and working his way down the Cape. It's all up with me!
All up! And Nellie! poor girl; I can't be here when she finds it
out. I know you think I'm a poor specimen of a man, Ros, but I
can't face the music. No," desperately, "and I won't."

He was giving way again, but I seized his shoulder and shook him.

"Stop it!" I commanded. "Stop it, George! Let me think. Be quiet
now and let me think. There must be a way out somewhere. Let me
think."

He leaned back in his chair. "All right," he said, hopelessly;
"think, if you want to. Though why you should want to think about
a thing like me I don't see. And I used to despise a crook as much
as any one! and a coward still more! And now I'm both a crook and
a coward."

I knew his cowardice was merely on Nellie's account. George Taylor
was no coward in the ordinary sense of the word, nor was he a
crook. I rose and paced up and down the room. He watched me
listlessly; it was plain that he felt no confidence whatever in my
being able to help him. After a time he spoke.

"It's no use, Ros," he said. "Don't worry your head about me; I
ain't worth it. If there was any way out, any way at all, I'd have
sighted it long ago. There ain't. Take my advice and leave me.
You don't want to be mixed up with an embezzler."

I turned on him, impatiently. "I have been mixed up, as you call
it, with one before," I said, sharply. "Is my own family record so
clean that I need to pretend--there, George! don't be an idiot.
Let me think."

The clock chimed ten. I stopped in my walk and turned to him.

"George," I said, "tell me this: If you had the money to buy back
these bonds belonging to the bank you would be all right, wouldn't
you? If you had it in your hands by to-morrow morning, I mean."

"Yes; IF I had it--but I haven't."

"You could send the money to the brokers and--"

"Send! I wouldn't send; I'd go myself and fetch the bonds back
with me. Once I had them in that safe again I--"

"And you would not take any more risks, even if the market dropped
and they had to sell out your account? Even if you lost every cent
of your investment?"

The fierce earnestness of his answer satisfied even me. "What do
you think I am?" he demanded. "Investment be hanged! It's my name
as an honest man that I care about. Once let me get that back
again and I'll face the poorhouse. Yes, and I'll tell Nellie the
truth, all except that I was a thief; I can't tell her that. But I
will tell her that I haven't got a cent except my salary. Then if
she wants to give me up, all right. I'll bear it as best I can.
Or, if she doesn't, and I lose my job here, I'll get another one
somewhere else; I'll work at anything. She and I can wait and . . .
But what is the use of talking like this? I've been over every
inch of the ground a thousand times. There ain't a ray of light
anywhere. The examiner will be here, the bonds will be missing,
and I--I'll be in jail, or in hell, one or the other."

"No, you won't," I said, firmly.

"I won't! Why not?"

"Because there IS a ray of light. More than a ray. George, you go
home and go to bed. To-morrow morning I may have news for you,
good news."

The blood rushed to his face. He seized the arm of his chair.

"Good news!" he gasped. "Good news for ME! Ros--Ros, for the
Lord's sake, what do you mean? You don't mean you see a way to--"

"Never mind what I mean. But I should like to know what you mean
by not coming to me before? What are friends for, if not to help
each other? Who told you that I was dead broke?"

"You? Why, you ain't got . . . Have you? Ros Paine, you ain't
got thirty-five hundred to spare. Why, you told me yourself--"

"Shut up! Get up from that chair and come with me. Yes, you; and
now, this minute. Give me that thing you've got in the drawer
there. No, I'll take it myself. You ought to be ashamed of its
being there, George. I am ashamed of you, and, if I thought you
really meant to use it, I should be still more ashamed. Come!
don't keep me waiting."

"But--but Ros--"

"Will you do as I tell you?"

I dragged him, almost literally dragged him, from the chair. Then,
after extinguishing the lamp, I led him to the door of the bank and
locked it, putting the key in my pocket.

"Now," said I, "I want you to make me a promise. I want you to
quit behaving like a coward, because you are not one, and promise
me that you will go straight home and to bed. I'll see you again
the first thing in the morning. Then, I think--yes, I think your
troubles, the worst part of them, will be over."

"But, Ros, PLEASE--I can't believe it! Won't you tell me--"

"Not a word. Will you promise me to behave like a man and go home?
Or must I go with you?"

"No. I'll--I'll promise. I'll go straight home. But, oh Ros, I
can't understand--"

"Good night."

I left him standing there, stammering incoherently like a man
awakening from a nightmare, and hurried away.

I could not describe my progress down the dark Lower Road and along
the Shore Lane. I do not remember any portion of it. I think I
ran most of the way and if I met any one--which is not likely,
considering the time--he or she must have thought me crazy. My
thoughts were centered upon one fixed purpose. I had made up my
mind to do a certain thing and, if possible, to do it that very
night. If I did not, if I had time in which to reflect, to
consider consequences, I might lose my nerve and it would not be
done at all.

It was with a feeling of great relief that, as I came in sight of
the Colton house, I saw lights in the rooms on the lower floor.
The family, not being native born Denboroites, had not retired even
though it was well after ten. I hastened up the long drive, and
stood before the big door, my hand upraised to the knocker. And
then, just for a moment, I hesitated.

If I lifted that knocker and let it fall; if I summoned the servant
and announced that I wished to speak with Mr. Colton; if I did what
I had come there to do, it would be all over with me in the
village. My new born popularity, the respect which Cap'n Warren
and Cap'n Jed and the rest of the townspeople had shown toward me
of late, the cordial recognition which had been mine during the
past few weeks and which, in spite of pretended indifference, I had
come to expect and enjoy, all these would be lost if I persisted in
my purpose. My future in Denboro depended upon whether or not I
knocked at that door. And it was not too late to back out, even
yet. I had only to turn quietly away and tell George, when I saw
him in the morning, that I could not help him as I had hoped. And
then I thought of his face as I saw it when I entered the bank--and
of Nellie's letter to me.

I seized the knocker and rapped sharply.

For a few moments my knock was unanswered. Then I heard footsteps
and the door was opened. Johnson, the butler, opened it, and his
clerical countenance assumed a most astonished expression when he
saw me standing before him.

"Is Mr. Colton in?" I asked.

"What? What--sir?" stammered Johnson. The "sir" was added under
protest. He did not wish to show more respect than was absolutely
necessary to a countryman, but he scarcely dared speak as
disrespectfully as he felt. Therefore he compromised by voicing
the respect and looking the other way.

"Is Mr. Colton in?" I repeated.

"I don't know. I--I don't think so--sir."

The windows at my left were, I knew, those of the library, the room
where "Big Jim" and I had had our first lively discussion of the
Shore Lane matter. I glanced at them.

"I think he is," I said. "In fact I know it; there is his shadow
on the curtain. Tell him Mr. Paine wishes to speak with him."

Johnson looked as insolent as he dared, and still hesitated.

"It is very late," he said. "Mr. Colton is not in the 'abit of
receiving callers at this time of night and--"

He was interrupted. The door behind him, the door leading from the
library to the hall, opened and Colton himself appeared.

"What is it, Johnson?" he asked. "Anything wrong?"

The butler hastened to explain.

"No sir," he said; "nothing wrong exactly, sir. There is a person
'ere to see you, sir, and--"

"To see me, eh? Who is it? Why, hello, Paine! is that you?"

"Mr. Colton," said I, "I am sorry to disturb you at such a late
hour, but--"

"Come in, come in," he interrupted. "What are you standing out
there for? Johnson, why didn't you ask Mr. Paine in? What do you
mean by keeping him out there?"

Mr. Johnson looked troubled.

"It was so late, sir," he stammered, "I thought--"

"You thought! If I had wanted any one to think I never should have
hired you. Come in, Paine. Come into the library."

He led the way to the library and I followed him. It was my second
visit to the big, handsomely furnished room and again, as on the
first occasion, the sight of the books and all the other refinements
and luxuries which money brings to its possessor gave me a pang of
envy and resentment. It added increased bitterness to the
humiliation of my errand. I had left that room defiantly expressing
my independence. I had come back to it--"

"Sit down," ordered Colton, pulling forward the big, leather-
covered chair. "Have a cigar?"

"No thank you."

"Humph! That's what you said when you were here before. You're
young, Paine. When you get to be as old as I am you'll never
refuse a good cigar, or anything else that is good, when it is
offered you. Well, you're still standing. Aren't going to refuse
to sit down, are you?"

That was exactly what I was going to do. I would not sit down in
that house. I would not accept the slightest courtesy from this
man or any of his people. I would get rid of the unpleasant task I
had come to do and then go away, never to return. They might make
the most of the triumph which was to be theirs, but I would compel
them to understand that I was not seeking their favor. I would not
accept their patronage and they should know it. This, as I look
back at it now, seems silly and childish enough, but I was not
myself that night.

"Mr. Colton," said I, ignoring the proffered chair, "I have come to
see you on a matter of business."

"Business, eh? Umph! I thought probably you were going to ask me
to go fishing with you again. I'm all ready for another tussle
with those--what do you call 'em--squid--squit--good Lord! what a
name for a decent fish! But I don't care a continental what you
call 'em. I'm ready to get at 'em when you say the word."

"My business will not detain either of us long. I--"

"Sit down, man, sit down. You make me nervous standing there."

"No. I won't sit."

He looked at me.

"What is the matter with you?" he asked. "You haven't got a balky
digestion, have you? I've been fighting one for the last week.
That fool of a country doctor tells me if I'm not careful what I
eat I'll keel over pretty soon. I told him I'd eaten what I dashed
please ever since I'd had teeth and I wasn't going to quit now.
But I do feel like the devil. Look it, don't I?"

He did look ill, that was a fact, though I had not noticed it
before and was far from feeling pity for him then. In fact I was
rather glad to know that he was uncomfortable. I wanted him to be.

"What is the matter with you?" he demanded. "You look as if you
had seen your grandmother's ghost."

I ignored the question. "Mr. Colton," I began again. "You made an
offer not long ago."

I had caught his attention at last. He leaned back in his chair.

"I did," he said. "Ye-es, I did. Do you mean you are going to
accept it?"

"In a way--yes."

"In a way? What do you mean by that? I tell you frankly, Paine,
if you go to work for me there must be no 'ifs' or 'buts' about it.
You'll enter my office and you'll do as I, or the men under me,
tell you to do."

I was glad he said that, glad that he misunderstood me. It gave me
an opportunity to express my feelings toward him--as I was feeling
then.

"Don't let that trouble you," I said, sarcastically. "There will
be no 'ifs' and 'buts' so far as that is concerned. I have no
desire to work for you, Mr. Colton, and I don't intend doing so.
That was not the offer I meant."

He was surprised, I am sure, but he did not express astonishment.
He bent forward and looked at me more keenly than ever.

"There was only one other offer that I remember making you," he
said, slowly. "That was for that land of yours. I offered you
five thousand dollars for it. Do you mean you accept that offer?"

"Not exactly."

"Humph! Paine, we're wasting a lot of time here, it seems to me.
My time is more or less valuable, and my digestion is, as I told
you, pretty bad. Come! get it over. What do you mean? Are you
going to sell me that land?"

"Yes."

He puffed deliberately at his cigar. His gaze did not leave my
face.

"Why?" he asked, after a moment.

"That is my own affair. I will sell you the land, but not for five
thousand dollars."

His expression changed. He knocked the ashes from his cigar and
frowned.

"I see," he sneered. "Humph! Well, I've tried to make it plain to
you fellows down here that I couldn't be held up. I thought I'd
done it, but evidently I haven't. Five hundred is a good price for
that land. Five thousand is ridiculous, but I gave you my reasons
for being willing to be robbed that much. That, however, is the
limit. I'll give you five thousand, but not another cent. You can
take it or get out."

This was better. When he talked like that I could answer him and
enjoy it.

"I'll get out very shortly," I said. "You are no more anxious to
have that happen than I am. I don't want your other cent. I don't
want your five thousand dollars. I'll sell you the land on one
condition--no, on two. The first is that you pay me thirty-five
hundred dollars for it."

"WHAT?"

I had upset his composure this time. He forgot to sneer; he even
forgot to smoke.

"What?" he cried again. "Thirty-five hundred! Why, I offered you--"

"I know your offer. This is mine: I will sell you the land for
thirty-five hundred, and not another cent. That, as you say, is
the limit. You can take it or--or I will follow your suggestion
and get out."

We looked at each other. His fingers moved toward the match box on
the table. He took a match, scratched it, and held it to the end
of his cigar. Then he took the cigar from his lips, blew out the
match and tossed the latter into the fireplace.

"What is the second condition?" he asked, abruptly.

"That you pay me in cash, in money and not by check, at once."

"At once? Now, do you mean?"

"Yes, now. To-night if possible; if not, no later than nine
o'clock to-morrow morning."

"Humph! Do you think I carry thirty-five hundred loose in my
change pocket?"

"I don't know. But that is the second condition."

"Humph! . . . Look here, Paine; what--? I offered you the five
thousand. That offer holds good."

"I don't accept it. I will sell for thirty-five hundred; no more
and no less."

"But why not more?"

"I don't know. Yes, I do, too. You said once that you were
willing to pay forty-five hundred for the privilege of having your
own way. Perhaps I am willing to sacrifice fifteen hundred for the
privilege of having mine. At all events I mean what I say."

"But why just thirty-five? Wouldn't you take thirty-six?"

"No. It is useless to argue, Mr. Colton, and useless to ask my
reasons. I have them, and that is enough. Will you accept MY
offer?"

He hesitated. The sneer had left his face and his tone when he
addressed me was respectful, though there was a curious note of
chagrin or dissatisfaction in it. I had expected him to be eager
and, perhaps, mockingly triumphant. He was not. He seemed
reluctant, almost disappointed.

"I suppose I'll have to," he said. "But, Paine, what is up? Why
are you doing this? You're not afraid of me? No, of course you're
not. You're not the kind to squeal and lie down because you think
the odds are against you . . . Confound you!" with a sudden burst
of impatience, "you are enough to upset all the self-conceit a
man's got in him. Just as I think I'm beginning to size you up you
break loose in a new place."

"Pardon me," I put in, "but I don't see that you are helping to
save that valuable time of yours. I understand that you accept.
Will you pay me now?"

He rose, threw away his cigar, and, with his hands in his pockets,
stood regarding me.

"Your mind is made up, is it?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Humph! Have you thought of what our mutual friend Dean and the
rest of the patriots may say when they find this out?"

I had thought of little else all the way from the bank to his door.
I was thinking of it then.

"Of course," he added, "that is not my affair, but--"

"It is not."

"You're right; it isn't. Still--hang it all, Paine! I don't often
feel any compunctions when I beat a fellow in a game like this, and
I did intend to have my own way in this one--"

"Well, you're having it, aren't you?" I put in. "Why talk so much
about it?"

"Because I am not so sure I am having it. Of course I can see
that, for some reason or other, you need thirty-five hundred
dollars. Anyone but you, if they were going to sell, would get the
last dime they could squeeze. You won't, because you are as pig-
headed as--as--"

"Oh, do cut it short," I snapped. And then, a trifle ashamed of my
rudeness, "Excuse me, Mr. Colton, but this isn't exactly pleasant
for me and I want to get it over. Will you pay me now?"

"Hold on; let me finish. I was going to say that, if you needed
the thirty-five, perhaps I could manage to let you have it."

I stared at him. "Let me have it!" I cried. "Do you mean you'll
lend it to me?"

"Why, yes, maybe. You and I have had such a first-rate, square,
stand up fight that I rather hate to have it end. I want to lick
you, not have you quit before I've really begun to fight. There's
no fool philanthropy in this, understand; it is just for my own
satisfaction."

I was so taken aback by this totally unexpected offer from the man
whom I had insulted a dozen times since I entered his house, that I
found it almost impossible to answer.

"What do you say?" he asked.

"No," I faltered. And then more firmly, "No; certainly not. I--I
am much obliged to you, Mr. Colton, but--no."

"All right. You know best. I'll take your offer and I will hand
you the money at the bank to-morrow morning. Will that do?"

"Not at the bank, Mr. Colton. Send it over to the house, if you
can conveniently."

"I'll have it here before ten. My lawyer will draw up the papers
and arrange for transfer of title in a few days. What? Going, are
you? Good night. Oh--er--Paine, remember that my other offer,
that of the place in my office, is open when you're ready to take
it."

I shook my head. I had turned to go, but now I turned back,
feeling that, perhaps, I should apologize again for my rudeness.
After all, he had been kind, very kind, and I had scarcely thanked
him. So I turned back to say something, I hardly knew what.

My doing so was a mistake. The door behind me opened and a voice
said reproachfully, "Father, are you still here? The doctor
said . . . Oh, I beg pardon."

I recognized the voice. Of all voices in the world I wished least
to hear it just then. My back was toward the door and I kept it
so. If she would only go! If she would only shut that door and go
away!

I think she would have gone but her father called her.

"Mabel," he cried, "Mabel, don't go. It's all right. Come in.
Paine and I have finished our talk. Nothing more you wished to
say, was there, Paine?"

"No," said I. I was obliged to turn now; I could not get out of
that room without doing it. So turn I did, and we faced each
other.

"Good evening, Miss Colton," I said, with all the calmness I could
muster.

She said, "Good evening," distantly and without any enthusiasm, but
I saw her glance at her father and then at me and I knew she was
wondering what our being together could possibly mean.

"Paine has been making me a little call," explained Colton, his eye
twinkling. "Mabel, I'll risk another bet that you can't guess why
he came."

"I shall not try," she said, disdainfully.

"Oh, you'd better! No? You won't? Well, then, I'll tell you. He
has just sold me that land of his . . . Don't look at me like
that; he has. We had a little disagreement as to price, but," with
a grin, "I met his figures and we closed the deal. Aren't you
going to congratulate him on having come to his senses at last?
Come! he's waiting for congratulations."

This was not true. I was waiting for nothing; I was on my way to
the door. But, to reach it I was obliged to pass her and our eyes
met. My glance wavered, I know, but hers did not. For a moment
she looked at me. Then she smiled. Whenever I am tempted to be
vain, even now, I remember that smile.

"I congratulate him," she said. "Come, Father; you must go to bed
now."

CHAPTER XVII

I am not going to attempt a description of my thoughts that night.
It would take too long and the description would be wearisome.
Other people's miseries are not interesting and I shall not catalog
mine. Morning came at last and I rose, bathed my hot face in cold
water, and went down stairs. Early as it was, not yet six, I heard
Dorinda in the kitchen and, having no desire for conversation, I
went out and walked up and down the beach until breakfast time. I
had to pretend to eat, but I ate so little that both Lute and
Dorinda once more commented upon my lack of appetite. Lute, who
had never become fully reconciled to my becoming a member of the
working class, hastened to lay the blame for my condition upon my
labors at the bank.

"The trouble is," he announced, dogmatically, "the trouble is,
Roscoe, that you ain't fitted for bein' shut up astern of a deck.
Look at yourself now! Just go into Comfort's room and stand in
front of her lookin' glass and look at yourself. There you be,
pale and peaked and wore out. Look for all the world just as I
done when I had the tonsils two winters ago. Ain't that so,
Dorindy?"

His wife's answer was a contemptuous sniff.

"If you mean to say that you looked peaked when you had sore
throat," she announced, "then there's somethin' the matter with
your mind or your eyesight, one or t'other. You peaked? Why, your
face was swelled up like a young one's balloon Fourth of July Day.
And as for bein' pale! My soul! I give you my word I couldn't
scurcely tell where your neck left off and the strip of red flannel
you made me tie 'round it begun."

"Don't make no difference! I FELT pale, anyhow. And I didn't eat
no more'n Ros does. You'll have to give in to that, Dorindy. I
didn't eat nothin' but beef tea and gruel."

"You et enough of them to float a schooner."

"Maybe I did," with grieved dignity; "maybe I did. But that's no
reason why you should set there and heave my sufferin's in my
face."

"What is the man talkin' about now? I didn't heave 'em in your
face. They come there themselves, same as sore throat sufferin's
generally do, and if you hadn't waded around in the snow with leaky
boots, because you was too lazy to take 'em to the shoemaker's to
be patched, they wouldn't."

Lute drew back from the table. "It's no use!" he declared, "a man
can't even be sick in peace in this house. Some wives would have
been sorry to see their husbands with one foot in the grave."

"Your feet was in the cookstove oven most of the time. There!
there! the more you talk the further from home you get. You
started in with Roscoe and the bank and you're in the grave
already. If I was you I'd quit afore I went any further. Land
knows where you might fetch up if you kept on! I . . . Mercy on
us! who's at the kitchen door this time in the mornin'?"

Her husband, ever curious, was on his way to answer the knock
already. He came back, a moment later, sputtering with excitement.

"It's that Mr. butler, the Johnson over to Mr. Colton's," he
whispered. "I mean it's that Jutler--that-- There, Dorindy! you
see what sort of a state your hectorin' has worked me into! It's
that parson critter who opens Colton's door for him, that's who
'tis. And he wants to see Ros. I tried to find out what for, but
he wouldn't tell."

Even Dorinda showed surprise. She looked at the clock, "This hour
of the mornin'!" she exclaimed; "what in the world--?"

I hastened to the kitchen, closing the dining-room door behind me
just in time to prevent Lute's following me. Johnson, the butler,
was standing on the mica slab at the threshold inspecting our
humble premises with lofty disdain.

"Mr. Colton sent this to you, sir," he said, handing me an
envelope. "He wishes you to send a receipt by me."

I took the envelope and, stepping back out of sight, tore it open.
Inside was a check on a New York bank for four thousand dollars.
It was made payable to "Bearer." With it was this brief note:

Dear Paine:

This is the best I can do for you, as I haven't the money on hand.
Cash it yourself, take out your thirty-five hundred and hold the
additional five hundred until I, or one of the family, call for it.
I made the thing payable to Bearer because I imagined you would
prefer it that way. Send me some sort of receipt by Johnson;
anything will do. I will see my lawyer in a day or two. Meanwhile
have your papers, deeds, etc., ready when he calls for them.

Yours truly,

JAMES W. COLTON.

For a minute I considered. If I could cash the check at the bank
without Taylor's knowledge and get him off to Boston on the early
train, I might be able to cover my tracks. It was necessary that
they should be covered. Knowing George as I did I knew that he
would never consent to my sacrifice. He would not permit me to
wreck my future in Denboro to save him. The money must be turned
over to the Boston bankers and the bank's bonds once more in the
vault where they belonged before he learned where that money came
from. Then it would be too late to refuse and too late to undo
what had been done. He would have to accept and I might be able
to prevail upon him to keep silent regarding the whole affair. I
disliked the check with Colton's name upon it; I should have much
preferred the cash; but cash, it seemed, could not be had without
considerable delay, and with that bank examiner's visit imminent
every moment of time was valuable. I folded the check, put it in
my pocketbook, and, hastily scribbling a receipt in pencil at the
bottom of Colton's note, replaced the latter in the envelope and
handed it to Johnson, who departed.

Entering the dining-room I found Dorinda and Lute at the window,
peering after the butler.

"By time!" exclaimed Lute, "if I didn't know I should say he was a
bigger big-bug than old Colton himself. Look how he struts! He
sartin is a dignified lookin' man. I don't see how he ever come to
be just hired help."

"Um-hm," sniffed the cynical Mrs. Rogers. "Well; you can get an
awful lot of dignity for its board and lodgin'! There's nothin'
much more dignified or struts much better'n a rooster, but it's the
hens that lay the eggs. What did he want, Roscoe?"

I made some excuse or other for Mr. Johnson's early call and,

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