Thirty or forty years ago, in one of those grey towns along the Burlington railroad, which are so much greyer today than they were then, there was a house well known from Omaha to Denver for its hospitality and for a certain charm of atmosphere. Well known, that is to say, to the railroad aristocracy of that time; men who had to do with the railroad itself, or with one of the “land companies” which were its by-products. In those days it was enough to say of a man that he was “connected with the Burlington.” There were the directors, the general managers, vice-presidents, superintendents, whose names we all knew; and their younger brothers or nephews were auditors, freight agents, departmental assistants. Everyone “connected” with the Road, even the large cattle — and grain-shippers, had annual passes; they and their families rode about over the line a great deal. There were then two distinct social strata in the prairie States; the homesteaders and hand-workers who were there to make a living, and the bankers and gentlemen ranchers who came from the Atlantic seaboard to invest money and to “develop our great West,” as they used to tell us.
When the Burlington men were travelling back and forth on business not very urgent, they found it agreeable to drop off the express and spend a night in a pleasant house where their importance was delicately recognized; and no house was pleasanter than that of Captain Daniel Forrester, at Sweet Water. Captain Forrester was himself a railroad man, a contractor, who had built hundreds of miles of road for the Burlington, — over the sage brush and cattle country, and on up into the Black Hills.
The Forrester place, as every one called it, was not at all remarkable; the people who lived there made it seem much larger and finer than it was. The house stood on a low round hill, nearly a mile east of town; a white house with a wing, and sharp-sloping roofs to shed the snow. It was encircled by porches, too narrow for modern notions of comfort, supported by the fussy, fragile pillars of that time, when every honest stick of timber was tortured by the turning-lathe into something hideous. Stripped of its vines and denuded of its shrubbery, the house would probably have been ugly enough. It stood close into a fine cottonwood grove that threw sheltering arms to left and right and grew all down the hillside behind it. Thus placed on the hill, against its bristling grove, it was the first thing one saw on coming into Sweet Water by rail, and the last thing one saw on departing.
To approach Captain Forrester’s property, you had first to get over a wide, sandy creek which flowed along the eastern edge of the town. Crossing this by the footbridge or the ford, you entered the Captain’s private lane bordered by Lombardy poplars, with wide meadows lying on either side. Just at the foot of the hill on which the house sat, one crossed a second creek by the stout wooden road-bridge. This stream traced artless loops and curves through the broad meadows that were half pasture land, half marsh. Any one but Captain Forrester would have drained the bottom land and made it into highly productive fields. But he had selected this place long ago because it looked beautiful to him, and he happened to like the way the creek wound through his pasture, with mint and joint-grass and twinkling willows along its banks. He was well off for those times, and he had no children. He could afford to humour his fancies.
When the Captain drove friends from Omaha or Denver over from the station in his democrat wagon, it gratified him to hear these gentlemen admire his fine stock, grazing in the meadows on either side of his lane. And when they reached the top of the hill, it gratified him to see men who were older than himself leap nimbly to the ground and run up the front steps as Mrs. Forrester came out on the porch to greet them. Even the hardest and coldest of his friends, a certain narrow-faced Lincoln banker, became animated when he took her hand, tried to meet the gay challenge in her eyes and to reply cleverly to the droll word of greeting on her lips.
She was always there, just outside the front door, to welcome their visitors, having been warned of their approach by the sound of hoofs and the rumble of wheels on the wooden bridge. If she happened to be in the kitchen, helping her Bohemian cook, she came out in her apron, waving a buttery iron spoon, or shook cherry-stained fingers at the new arrival. She never stopped to pin up a lock; she was attractive in dishabille, and she knew it. She had been known to rush to the door in her dressing-gown, brush in hand and her long black hair rippling over her shoulders, to welcome Cyrus Dalzell, president of the Colorado & Utah; and the great man had never felt more flattered. In his eyes, and in the eyes of the admiring middle-aged men who visited there, whatever Mrs. Forrester chose to do was “lady-like” because she did it. They could not imagine her in any dress or situation in which she would not be charming. Captain Forrester himself, a man of few words, told Judge Pommeroy that he had never seen her look more captivating than on the day when she was chased by the new bull in the pasture. She had forgotten about the bull and gone into the meadow to gather wild flowers. He heard her scream, and as he ran puffing down the hill, she was scudding along the edge of the marshes like a hare, beside herself with laughter, and stubbornly clinging to the crimson parasol that had made all the trouble.
Mrs. Forrester was twenty-five years younger than her husband, and she was his second wife. He married her in California and brought her to Sweet Water a bride. They called the place home even then, when they lived there but a few months out of each year. But later, after the Captain’s terrible fall with his horse in the mountains, which broke him so that he could no longer build railroads, he and his wife retired to the house on the hill. He grew old there, — and even she, alas! grew older.
But we will begin this story with a summer morning long ago, when Mrs. Forrester was still a young woman, and Sweet Water was a town of which great things were expected. That morning she was standing in the deep bay-window of her parlour, arranging old-fashioned blush roses in a glass bowl. Glancing up, she saw a group of little boys coming along the driveway, barefoot, with fishing-poles and lunch-baskets. She knew most of them; there was Niel Herbert, Judge Pommeroy’s nephew, a handsome boy of twelve whom she liked; and polite George Adams, son of a gentleman rancher from Lowell, Massachusetts. The others were just little boys from the town; the butcher’s red-headed son, the leading grocer’s fat brown twins, Ed Elliott (whose flirtatious old father kept a shoe store and was the Don Juan of the lower world of Sweet Water), and the two sons of the German tailor, — pale, freckled lads with ragged clothes and ragged rust-coloured hair, from whom she sometimes bought game or catfish when they appeared silent and spook-like at her kitchen door and thinly asked if she would “care for any fish this morning.”
As the boys came up the hill she saw them hesitate and consult together. “You ask her, Niel.”
“You’d better, George. She goes to your house all the time, and she barely knows me to speak to.”
As they paused before the three steps which led up to the front porch, Mrs. Forrester came to the door and nodded graciously, one of the pink roses in her hand.
“Good-morning, boys. Off for a picnic?”
George Adams stepped forward and solemnly took off his big straw hat. “Good-morning, Mrs. Forrester. Please may we fish and wade down in the marsh and have our lunch in the grove?”
“Certainly. You have a lovely day. How long has school been out? Don’t you miss it? I’m sure Niel does. Judge Pommeroy tells me he’s very studious.”
The boys laughed, and Niel looked unhappy.
“Run along, and be sure you don’t leave the gate into the pasture open. Mr. Forrester hates to have the cattle get in on his blue grass.”
The boys went quietly round the house to the gate into the grove, then ran shouting down the grassy slopes under the tall trees. Mrs. Forrester watched them from the kitchen window until they disappeared behind the roll of the hill. She turned to her Bohemian cook.
“Mary, when you are baking this morning, put in a pan of cookies for those boys. I’ll take them down when they are having their lunch.”
The round hill on which the Forrester house stood sloped gently down to the bridge in front, and gently down through the grove behind. But east of the house, where the grove ended, it broke steeply from high grassy banks, like bluffs, to the marsh below. It was thither the boys were bound.
When lunch time came they had done none of the things they meant to do. They had behaved like wild creatures all morning; shouting from the breezy bluffs, dashing down into the silvery marsh through the dewy cobwebs that glistened on the tall weeds, swishing among the pale tan cattails, wading in the sandy creek bed, chasing a striped water snake from the old willow stump where he was sunning himself, cutting sling-shot crotches, throwing themselves on their stomachs to drink at the cool spring that flowed out from under a bank into a thatch of dark watercress. Only the two German boys, Rheinhold and Adolph Blum, withdrew to a still pool where the creek was dammed by a reclining tree trunk, and, in spite of all the noise and splashing about them, managed to catch a few suckers. The wild roses were wide open and brilliant, the blue-eyed grass was in purple flower, and the silvery milkweed was just coming on. Birds and butterflies darted everywhere. All at once the breeze died, the air grew very hot, the marsh steamed, and the birds disappeared. The boys found they were tired; their shirts stuck to their bodies and their hair to their foreheads. They left the sweltering marsh-meadows for the grove, lay down on the clean grass under the grateful shade of the tall cottonwoods, and spread out their lunch. The Blum boys never brought anything but rye bread and hunks of dry cheese, — their companions wouldn’t have touched it on any account. But Thaddeus Grimes, the butcher’s red-headed son, was the only one impolite enough to show his scorn. “You live on wienies to home, why don’t you never bring none?” he bawled.
“Hush,” said Niel Herbert. He pointed to a white figure coming rapidly down through the grove, under the flickering leaf shadows, — Mrs. Forrester, bareheaded, a basket on her arm, her blue-black hair shining in the sun. It was not until years afterward that she began to wear veils and sun hats, though her complexion was never one of her beauties. Her cheeks were pale and rather thin, slightly freckled in summer.
As she approached, George Adams, who had a particular mother, rose, and Niel followed his example.
“Here are some hot cookies for your lunch, boys.” She took the napkin off the basket. “Did you catch anything?”
“We didn’t fish much. Just ran about,” said George.
“I know! You were wading and things.” She had a nice way of talking to boys, light and confidential. “I wade down there myself sometimes, when I go down to get flowers. I can’t resist it. I pull off my stockings and pick up my skirts, and in I go!” She thrust out a white shoe and shook it.
“But you can swim, can’t you, Mrs. Forrester,” said George. “Most women can’t.”
“Oh yes, they can! In California everybody swims. But the Sweet Water doesn’t tempt me, — mud and water snakes and blood-suckers — Ugh!” she shivered, laughing.
“We seen a water snake this morning and chased him. A whopper!” Thad Grimes put in.
“Why didn’t you kill him? Next time I go wading he’ll bite my toes! Now, go on with your lunch. George can leave the basket with Mary as you go out.” She left them, and they watched her white figure drifting along the edge of the grove as she stopped here and there to examine the raspberry vines by the fence.
“These are good cookies, all right,” said one of the giggly brown Weaver twins. The German boys munched in silence. They were all rather pleased that Mrs. Forrester had come down to them herself, instead of sending Mary. Even rough little Thad Grimes, with his red thatch and catfish mouth — the characteristic feature of all the Grimes brood — knew that Mrs. Forrester was a very special kind of person. George and Niel were already old enough to see for themselves that she was different from the other townswomen, and to reflect upon what it was that made her so. The Blum brothers regarded her humbly from under their pale, chewed-off hair, as one of the rich and great of the world. They realized, more than their companions, that such a fortunate and privileged class was an axiomatic fact in the social order.
The boys had finished their lunch and were lying on the grass talking about how Judge Pommeroy’s water spaniel, Fanny, had been poisoned, and who had certainly done it, when they had a second visitor.
“Shut up, boys, there he comes now. That’s Poison Ivy,” said one of the Weaver twins. “Shut up, we don’t want old Roger poisoned.”
A well-grown boy of eighteen or nineteen, dressed in a shabby corduroy hunting suit, with a gun and gamebag, had climbed up from the marsh and was coming down the grove between the rows of trees. He walked with a rude, arrogant stride, kicking at the twigs, and carried himself with unnatural erectness, as if he had a steel rod down his back. There was something defiant and suspicious about the way he held his head. He came up to the group and addressed them in a superior, patronizing tone.
“Hullo, kids. What are YOU doing here?”
“Picnic,” said Ed Elliott.
“I thought girls went on picnics. Did you bring teacher along? Ain’t you kids old enough to hunt yet?”
George Adams looked at him scornfully. “Of course we are. I got a 22 Remington for my last birthday. But we know better than to bring guns over here. You better hide yours, Mr. Ivy, or Mrs. Forrester will come down and tell you to get out.”
“She can’t see us from the house. And anyhow, she can’t say anything to me. I’m just as good as she is.”
To this the boys made no reply. Such an assertion was absurd even to fish-mouthed Thad; his father’s business depended upon some people being better than others, and ordering better cuts of meat in consequence. If everybody ate round steak like Ivy Peters’ family, there would be nothing in the butcher’s trade.
The visitor had put his gun and gamebag behind a tree, however, and stood stiffly upright, surveying the group out of his narrow beady eyes and making them all uncomfortable. George and Niel hated to look at Ivy, — and yet his face had a kind of fascination for them. It was red, and the flesh looked hard, as if it were swollen from bee-stings, or from an encounter with poison ivy. This nickname, however, was given him because it was well known that he had “made away” with several other dogs before he had poisoned the Judge’s friendly water spaniel. The boys said he took a dislike to a dog and couldn’t rest until he made an end of him.
Ivy’s red skin was flecked with tiny freckles, like rust spots, and in each of his hard cheeks there was a curly indentation, like a knot in a tree-bole, — two permanent dimples which did anything but soften his countenance. His eyes were very small, and an absence of eyelashes gave his pupils the fixed, unblinking hardness of a snake’s or a lizard’s. His hands had the same swollen look as his face, were deeply creased across the back and knuckles, as if the skin were stretched too tight. He was an ugly fellow, Ivy Peters, and he liked being ugly.
He began telling the boys that it was too hot to hunt now, but later he meant to steal down to the marsh, where the ducks came at sundown, and bag a few. “I can make off across the corn fields before the old Cap sees me. He’s not much on the run.”
“He’ll complain to your father.”
“A whoop my father cares!” The speaker’s restless eyes were looking up through the branches. “See that woodpecker tapping; don’t mind us a bit. That’s nerve!”
“They are protected here, so they’re not afraid,” said precise George.
“Hump! They’ll spoil the old man’s grove for him. That tree’s full of holes already. Wouldn’t he come down easy, now!”
Niel and George Adams sat up. “Don’t you dare shoot here, you’ll get us all into trouble.”
“She’d come right down from the house,” cried Ed Elliott.
“Let her come, stuck-up piece! Who’s talking about shooting, anyway? There’s more ways of killing dogs than choking them with butter.”
At this effrontery the boys shot amazed glances at one another, and the brown Weaver twins broke simultaneously into giggles and rolled over on the turf.
But Ivy seemed unaware that he was regarded as being especially resourceful where dogs were concerned. He drew from his pocket a metal sling-shot and some round bits of gravel. “I won’t kill it. I’ll just surprise it, so we can have a look at it.”
“Bet you won’t hit it!”
“Bet I will!” He fitted the stone to the leather, squinted, and let fly. Sure enough, the woodpecker dropped at his feet. He threw his heavy black felt hat over it. Ivy never wore a straw hat, even in the hottest weather. “Now wait. He’ll come to. You’ll hear him flutter in a minute.”
“It ain’t a he, anyhow. It’s a female. Anybody would know that,” said Niel contemptuously, annoyed that this unpopular boy should come along and spoil their afternoon. He held the fate of his uncle’s spaniel against Ivy Peters.
“All right, Miss Female,” said Ivy carelessly, intent upon a project of his own. He took from his pocket a little red leather box, and when he opened it the boys saw that it contained curious little instruments: tiny sharp knife blades, hooks, curved needles, a saw, a blow-pipe, and scissors. “Some of these I got with a taxidermy outfit from the Youth’s Companion, and some I made myself.” He got stiffly down on his knees, — his joints seemed disinclined to bend at all, — and listened beside his hat. “She’s as lively as a cricket,” he announced. Thrusting his hand suddenly under the brim, he brought out the startled bird. It was not bleeding, and did not seem to be crippled.
“Now, you watch, and I’ll show you something,” said Ivy. He held the woodpecker’s head in a vice made of his thumb and forefinger, enclosing its panting body with his palm. Quick as a flash, as if it were a practised trick, with one of those tiny blades he slit both the eyes that glared in the bird’s stupid little head, and instantly released it.
The woodpecker rose in the air with a whirling, corkscrew motion, darted to the right, struck a tree-trunk, — to the left, and struck another. Up and down, backward and forward among the tangle of branches it flew, raking its feathers, falling and recovering itself. The boys stood watching it, indignant and uncomfortable, not knowing what to do. They were not especially sensitive; Thad was always on hand when there was anything doing at the slaughter house, and the Blum boys lived by killing things. They wouldn’t have believed they could be so upset by a hurt woodpecker. There was something wild and desperate about the way the darkened creature beat its wings in the branches, whirling in the sunlight and never seeing it, always thrusting its head up and shaking it, as a bird does when it is drinking. Presently it managed to get its feet on the same limb where it had been struck, and seemed to recognize that perch. As if it had learned something by its bruises, it pecked and crept its way along the branch and disappeared into its own hole.
“There,” Niel Herbert exclaimed between his teeth, “if I can get it now, I can kill it and put it out of its misery. Let me on your back, Rhein.”
Rheinhold was the tallest, and he obediently bent his bony back. The trunk of a cottonwood tree is hard to climb; the bark is rough, and the branches begin a long way up. Niel tore his trousers and scratched his bare legs smartly before he got to the first fork. After recovering breath, he wound his way up toward the woodpecker’s hole, which was inconveniently high. He was almost there, his companions below thought him quite safe, when he suddenly lost his balance, turned a somersault in the air, and bumped down on the grass at their feet. There he lay without moving.
“Run for water!”
“Run for Mrs. Forrester! Ask her for whiskey.”
“No,” said George Adams, “let’s carry him up to the house. She will know what to do.”
“That’s sense,” said Ivy Peters. As he was much bigger and stronger than any of the others, he lifted Niel’s limp body and started up the hill. It had occurred to him that this would be a fine chance to get inside the Forresters’ house and see what it was like, and this he had always wanted to do.
Mary, the cook, saw them coming from the kitchen window, and ran for her mistress. Captain Forrester was in Kansas City that day.
Mrs. Forrester came to the back door. “What’s happened? It’s Niel, too! Bring him in this way, please.”
Ivy Peters followed her, keeping his eyes open, and the rest trooped after him, — all but the Blum boys, who knew that their place was outside the kitchen door. Mrs. Forrester led the way through the butler’s pantry, the dining-room, the back parlour, to her own bedroom. She threw down the white counterpane, and Ivy laid Niel upon the sheets. Mrs. Forrester was concerned, but not frightened.
“Mary, will you bring the brandy from the sideboard. George, telephone Dr. Dennison to come over at once. Now you other boys run out on the front porch and wait quietly. There are too many of you in here.” She knelt by the bed, putting brandy between Niel’s white lips with a teaspoon. The little boys withdrew, only Ivy Peters remained standing in the back parlour, just outside the bedroom door, his arms folded across his chest, taking in his surroundings with bold, unblinking eyes.
Mrs. Forrester glanced at him over her shoulder. “Will you wait on the porch, please? You are older than the others, and if anything is needed I can call on you.”
Ivy cursed himself, but he had to go. There was something final about her imperious courtesy, — high-and-mighty, he called it. He had intended to sit down in the biggest leather chair and cross his legs and make himself at home; but he found himself on the front porch, put out by that delicately modulated voice as effectually as if he had been kicked out by the brawniest tough in town.
Niel opened his eyes and looked wonderingly about the big, half-darkened room, full of heavy, old-fashioned walnut furniture. He was lying on a white bed with ruffled pillow shams, and Mrs. Forrester was kneeling beside him, bathing his forehead with cologne. Bohemian Mary stood behind her, with a basin of water. “Ouch, my arm!” he muttered, and the perspiration broke out on his face.
“Yes, dear, I’m afraid it’s broken. Don’t move. Dr. Dennison will be here in a few minutes. It doesn’t hurt very much, does it?”
“No’m,” he said faintly. He was in pain, but he felt weak and contented. The room was cool and dusky and quiet. At his house everything was horrid when one was sick. . . . What soft fingers Mrs. Forrester had, and what a lovely lady she was. Inside the lace ruffle of her dress he saw her white throat rising and falling so quickly. Suddenly she got up to take off her glittering rings, — she had not thought of them before, — shed them off her fingers with a quick motion as if she were washing her hands, and dropped them into Mary’s broad palm. The little boy was thinking that he would probably never be in so nice a place again. The windows went almost down to the baseboard, like doors, and the closed green shutters let in streaks of sunlight that quivered on the polished floor and the silver things on the dresser. The heavy curtains were looped back with thick cords, like ropes. The marble-topped wash-stand was as big as a sideboard. The massive walnut furniture was all inlaid with pale-coloured woods. Niel had a scroll-saw, and this inlay interested him.
“There, he looks better now, doesn’t he, Mary?” Mrs. Forrester ran her fingers through his black hair and lightly kissed him on the forehead. Oh, how sweet, how sweet she smelled!
“Wheels on the bridge; it’s Doctor Dennison. Go and show him in, Mary.”
Dr. Dennison set Niel’s arm and took him home in his buggy. Home was not a pleasant place to go to; a frail egg-shell house, set off on the edge of the prairie where people of no consequence lived. Except for the fact that he was Judge Pommeroy’s nephew, Niel would have been one of the boys to whom Mrs. Forrester merely nodded brightly as she passed. His father was a widower. A poor relation, a spinster from Kentucky, kept house for them, and Niel thought she was probably the worst housekeeper in the world. Their house was usually full of washing in various stages of incompletion, — tubs sitting about with linen soaking, — and the beds were “aired” until any hour in the afternoon when Cousin Sadie happened to think of making them up. She liked to sit down after breakfast and read murder trials, or peruse a well-worn copy of “St. Elmo.” Sadie was a good-natured thing and was always running off to help a neighbour, but Niel hated to have anyone come to see them. His father was at home very little, spent all his time at his office. He kept the county abstract books and made farm loans. Having lost his own property, he invested other people’s money for them. He was a gentle, agreeable man, young, good-looking, with nice manners, but Niel felt there was an air of failure and defeat about his family. He clung to his maternal uncle, Judge Pommeroy, white-whiskered and portly, who was Captain Forrester’s lawyer and a friend of all the great men who visited the Forresters. Niel was proud, like his mother; she died when he was five years old. She had hated the West, and used haughtily to tell her neighbours that she would never think of living anywhere but in Fayette county, Kentucky; that they had only come to Sweet Water to make investments and to “turn the crown into the pound.” By that phrase she was still remembered, poor lady.
For the next few years Niel saw very little of Mrs. Forrester. She was an excitement that came and went with summer. She and her husband always spent the winter in Denver and Colorado Springs, — left Sweet Water soon after Thanksgiving and did not return until the first of May. He knew that Mrs. Forrester liked him, but she hadn’t much time for growing boys. When she had friends staying with her, and gave a picnic supper for them, or a dance in the grove on a moonlit night, Niel was always invited. Coming and going along the road to the marsh with the Blum boys, he sometimes met the Captain driving visitors over in the democrat wagon, and he heard about these people from Black Tom, Judge Pommeroy’s faithful negro servant, who went over to wait on the table for Mrs. Forrester when she had a dinner party.
Then came the accident which cut short the Captain’s career as a roadbuilder. After that fall with his horse, he lay ill at the Antlers, in Colorado Springs, all winter. In the summer, when Mrs. Forrester brought him home to Sweet Water, he still walked with a cane. He had grown much heavier, seemed encumbered by his own bulk, and never suggested taking a contract for the railroad again. He was able to work in his garden, trimmed his snowball bushes and lilac hedges, devoted a great deal of time to growing roses. He and his wife still went away for the winter, but each year the period of their absence grew shorter.
All this while the town of Sweet Water was changing. Its future no longer looked bright. Successive crop failures had broken the spirit of the farmers. George Adams and his family had gone back to Massachusetts, disillusioned about the West. One by one the other gentlemen ranchers followed their example. The Forresters now had fewer visitors. The Burlington was “drawing in its horns,” as people said, and the railroad officials were not stopping off at Sweet Water so often, — were more inclined to hurry past a town where they had sunk money that would never come back.
Niel Herbert’s father was one of the first failures to be crowded to the wall. He closed his little house, sent his cousin Sadie back to Kentucky, and went to Denver to accept an office position. He left Niel behind to read law in the office with his uncle. Not that Niel had any taste for the law, but he liked being with Judge Pommeroy, and he might as well stay there as anywhere, for the present. The few thousand dollars his mother had left him would not be his until he was twenty-one.
Niel fitted up a room for himself behind the suite which the Judge retained for his law offices, on the second floor of the most pretentious brick block in town. There he lived with monastic cleanliness and severity, glad to be rid of his cousin and her inconsequential housewifery, and resolved to remain a bachelor, like his uncle. He took care of the offices, which meant that he did the janitor work, and arranged them exactly to suit his taste, making the rooms so attractive that all the Judge’s friends, and especially Captain Forrester, dropped in there to talk oftener than ever.
The Judge was proud of his nephew. Niel was now nineteen, a tall, straight, deliberate boy. His features were clear-cut, his grey eyes, so dark that they looked black under his long lashes, were rather moody and challenging. The world did not seem over-bright to young people just then. His reserve, which did not come from embarrassment or vanity, but from a critical habit of mind, made him seem older than he was, and a little cold.
One winter afternoon, only a few days before Christmas, Niel sat writing in the back office, at the long table where he usually worked or trifled, surrounded by the Judge’s fine law library and solemn steel engravings of statesmen and jurists. His uncle was at his desk in the front office, engaged in a friendly consultation with one of his country clients. Niel, greatly bored with the notes he was copying, was trying to invent an excuse for getting out on the street, when he became aware of light footsteps coming rapidly down the outside corridor. The door of the front office opened, he heard his uncle rise quickly to his feet, and, at the same moment, heard a woman’s laugh, — a soft, musical laugh which rose and descended like a suave scale. He turned in his screw chair so that he could look over his shoulder through the double doors into the front room. Mrs. Forrester stood there, shaking her muff at the Judge and the bewildered Swede farmer. Her quick eye lighted upon a bottle of Bourbon and two glasses on the desk among the papers.
“Is that the way you prepare your cases, Judge? What an example for Niel!” She peeped through the door and nodded to the boy as he rose.
He remained in the back room, however, watching her while she declined the chair the Judge pushed toward her and made a sign of refusal when he politely pointed to the Bourbon. She stood beside his desk in her long sealskin coat and cap, a crimson scarf showing above the collar, a little brown veil with spots tied over her eyes. The veil did not in the least obscure those beautiful eyes, dark and full of light, set under a low white forehead and arching eyebrows. The frosty air had brought no colour to her cheeks, — her skin had always the fragrant, crystalline whiteness of white lilacs. Mrs. Forrester looked at one, and one knew that she was bewitching. It was instantaneous, and it pierced the thickest hide. The Swede farmer was now grinning from ear to ear, and he, too, had shuffled to his feet. There could be no negative encounter, however slight, with Mrs. Forrester. If she merely bowed to you, merely looked at you, it constituted a personal relation. Something about her took hold of one in a flash; one became acutely conscious of her, of her fragility and grace, of her mouth which could say so much without words; of her eyes, lively, laughing, intimate, nearly always a little mocking.
“Will you and Niel dine with us tomorrow evening, Judge? And will you lend me Tom? We’ve just had a wire. The Ogdens are stopping over with us. They’ve been East to bring the girl home from school, — she’s had mumps or something. They want to get home for Christmas, but they will stop off for two days. Probably Frank Ellinger will come on from Denver.”
“No prospect can afford me such pleasure as that of dining with Mrs. Forrester,” said the Judge ponderously.
“Thank you!” she bowed playfully and turned toward the double doors. “Niel, could you leave your work long enough to drive me home? Mr. Forrester has been detained at the bank.”
Niel put on his wolfskin coat. Mrs. Forrester took him by his shaggy sleeve and went with him quickly down the long corridor and the narrow stairs to the street.
At the hitch-bar stood her cutter, looking like a painted toy among the country sleds and wagons. Niel tucked the buffalo robes about Mrs. Forrester, untied the ponies, and sprang in beside her. Without direction the team started down the frozen main street, where few people were abroad, crossed the creek on the ice, and trotted up the poplar-bordered lane toward the house on the hill. The late afternoon sun burned on the snow-crusted pastures. The poplars looked very tall and straight, pinched up and severe in their winter poverty. Mrs. Forrester chatted to Niel with her face turned toward him, holding her muff up to break the wind.
“I’m counting on you to help me entertain Constance Ogden. Can you take her off my hands day after tomorrow, come over in the afternoon? Your duties as a lawyer aren’t very arduous yet?” She smiled teasingly. “What can I do with a miss of nineteen? One who goes to college? I’ve no learned conversation for her!”
“Surely I haven’t!” Niel exclaimed.
“Oh, but you’re a boy! Perhaps you can interest her in lighter things. She’s considered pretty.”
“Do you think she is?”
“I haven’t seen her lately. She was striking, — china blue eyes and heaps of yellow hair, not exactly yellow, — what they call an ashen blond, I believe.”
Niel had noticed that in describing the charms of other women Mrs. Forrester always made fun of them a little.
They drew up in front of the house. Ben Keezer came round from the kitchen to take the team.
“You are to go back for Mr. Forrester at six, Ben. Niel, come in for a moment and get warm.” She drew him through the little storm entry, which protected the front door in winter, into the hall. “Hang up your coat and come along.” He followed her through the parlour into the sitting-room, where a little coal grate was burning under the black mantelpiece, and sat down in the big leather chair in which Captain Forrester dozed after his mid-day meal. It was a rather dark room, with walnut bookcases that had carved tops and glass doors. The floor was covered by a red carpet, and the walls were hung with large, old-fashioned engravings; “The House of the Poet on the Last Day of Pompeii,” “Shakespeare Reading before Queen Elizabeth.”
Mrs. Forrester left him and presently returned carrying a tray with a decanter and sherry glasses. She put it down on her husband’s smoking-table, poured out a glass for Niel and one for herself, and perched on the arm of one of the stuffed chairs, where she sat sipping her sherry and stretching her tiny, silver-buckled slippers out toward the glowing coals.
“It’s so nice to have you staying on until after Christmas,” Niel observed. “You’ve only been here one other Christmas since I can remember.”
“I’m afraid we’re staying on all winter this year. Mr. Forrester thinks we can’t afford to go away. For some reason, we are extraordinarily poor just now.”
“Like everybody else,” the boy commented grimly.
“Yes, like everybody else. However, it does no good to be glum about it, does it?” She refilled the two glasses. “I always take a little sherry at this time in the afternoon. At Colorado Springs some of my friends take tea, like the English. But I should feel like an old woman, drinking tea! Besides, sherry is good for my throat.” Niel remembered some legend about a weak chest and occasional terrifying hemorrhages. But that seemed doubtful, as one looked at her, — fragile, indeed, but with such light, effervescing vitality. “Perhaps I do seem old to you, Niel, quite old enough for tea and a cap!”
He smiled gravely. “You seem always the same to me, Mrs. Forrester.”
“Yes? And how is that?”
“Lovely. Just lovely.”
As she bent forward to put down her glass she patted his cheek. “Oh, you’ll do very well for Constance!” Then, seriously, “I’m glad if I do, though. I want you to like me well enough to come to see us often this winter. You shall come with your uncle to make a fourth at whist. Mr. Forrester must have his whist in the evening. Do you think he is looking any worse, Niel? It frightens me to see him getting a little uncertain. But there, we must believe in good luck!” She took up the half-empty glass and held it against the light.
Niel liked to see the firelight sparkle on her earrings, long pendants of garnets and seed-pearls in the shape of fleurs-delys. She was the only woman he knew who wore earrings; they hung naturally against her thin, triangular cheeks. Captain Forrester, although he had given her handsomer ones, liked to see her wear these, because they had been his mother’s. It gratified him to have his wife wear jewels; it meant something to him. She never left off her beautiful rings unless she was in the kitchen.
“A winter in the country may do him good,” said Mrs. Forrester, after a silence during which she looked intently into the fire, as if she were trying to read the outcome of their difficulties there. “He loves this place so much. But you and Judge Pommeroy must keep an eye on him when he is in town, Niel. If he looks tired or uncertain, make some excuse and bring him home. He can’t carry a drink or two as he used,” — she glanced over her shoulder to see that the door into the dining-room was shut. “Once last winter he had been drinking with some old friends at the Antlers, — nothing unusual, just as he always did, as a man must be able to do, — but it was too much for him. When he came out to join me in the carriage, coming down that long walk, you know, he fell. There was no ice, he didn’t slip. It was simply because he was unsteady. He had trouble getting up. I still shiver to think of it. To me, it was as if one of the mountains had fallen down.”
A little later Niel went plunging down the hill, looking exultantly into the streak of red sunset. Oh, the winter would not be so bad, this year! How strange that she should be here at all, a woman like her among common people! Not even in Denver had he ever seen another woman so elegant. He had sat in the dining-room of the Brown Palace hotel and watched them as they came down to dinner, — fashionable women from “the East,” on their way to California. But he had never found one so attractive and distinguished as Mrs. Forrester. Compared with her, other women were heavy and dull; even the pretty ones seemed lifeless, — they had not that something in their glance that made one’s blood tingle. And never elsewhere had he heard anything like her inviting, musical laugh, that was like the distant measures of dance music, heard through opening and shutting doors.
He could remember the very first time he ever saw Mrs. Forrester, when he was a little boy. He had been loitering in front of the Episcopal church one Sunday morning, when a low carriage drove up to the door. Ben Keezer was on the front seat, and on the back seat was a lady, alone, in a black silk dress all puffs and ruffles, and a black hat, carrying a parasol with a carved ivory handle. As the carriage stopped she lifted her dress to alight; out of a swirl of foamy white petticoats she thrust a black, shiny slipper. She stepped lightly to the ground and with a nod to the driver went into the church. The little boy followed her through the open door, saw her enter a pew and kneel. He was proud now that at the first moment he had recognized her as belonging to a different world from any he had ever known.
Niel paused for a moment at the end of the lane to look up at the last skeleton poplar in the long row; just above its pointed tip hung the hollow, silver winter moon.
In pleasant weather Judge Pommeroy walked to the Forresters’, but on the occasion of the dinner for the Ogdens he engaged the liveryman to take him and his nephew over in one of the town hacks, — vehicles seldom used except for funerals and weddings. They smelled strongly of the stable and contained lap-robes as heavy as lead and as slippery as oiled paper. Niel and his uncle were the only townspeople asked to the Forresters’ that evening; they rolled over the creek and up the hill in state, and emerged covered with horsehair.
Captain Forrester met them at the door, his burly figure buttoned up in a frock coat, a flat collar and black string tie under the heavy folds of his neck. He was always clean-shaven except for a drooping dun-coloured moustache. The company stood behind him laughing while Niel caught up the whisk-broom and began dusting roan hairs off his uncle’s broadcloth. Mrs. Forrester gave Niel a brushing in turn and then took him into the parlour and introduced him to Mrs. Ogden and her daughter.
The daughter was a rather pretty girl, Niel thought, in a pale pink evening dress which left bare her smooth arms and short, dimpled neck. Her eyes were, as Mrs. Forrester had said, a china blue, rather prominent and inexpressive. Her fleece of ashy-gold hair was bound about her head with silver bands. In spite of her fresh, rose-like complexion, her face was not altogether agreeable. Two dissatisfied lines reached from the corners of her short nose to the corners of her mouth. When she was displeased, even a little, these lines tightened, drew her nose back, and gave her a suspicious, injured expression. Niel sat down by her and did his best, but he found her hard to talk to. She seemed nervous and distracted, kept glancing over her shoulder, and crushing her handkerchief up in her hands. Her mind, clearly, was elsewhere. After a few moments he turned to the mother, who was more easily interested.
Mrs. Ogden was almost unpardonably homely. She had a pear-shaped face, and across her high forehead lay a row of flat, dry curls. Her bluish brown skin was almost the colour of her violet dinner dress. A diamond necklace glittered about her wrinkled throat. Unlike Constance, she seemed thoroughly amiable, but as she talked she tilted her head and “used” her eyes, availing herself of those arch glances which he had supposed only pretty women indulged in. Probably she had long been surrounded by people to whom she was an important personage, and had acquired the manner of a spoiled darling. Niel thought her rather foolish at first, but in a few moments he had got used to her mannerisms and began to like her. He found himself laughing heartily and forgot the discouragement of his failure with the daughter.
Mr. Ogden, a short, weather-beaten man of fifty, with a cast in one eye, a stiff imperial, and twisted moustaches, was noticeably quieter and less expansive than when Niel had met him here on former occasions. He seemed to expect his wife to do the talking. When Mrs. Forrester addressed him, or passed near him, his good eye twinkled and followed her, — while the eye that looked askance remained unchanged and committed itself to nothing.
Suddenly everyone became more lively; the air warmed, and the lamplight seemed to brighten, as a fourth member of the Denver party came in from the dining-room with a glittering tray full of cocktails he had been making. Frank Ellinger was a bachelor of forty, six feet two, with long straight legs, fine shoulders, and a figure that still permitted his white waistcoat to button without a wrinkle under his conspicuously well-cut dinner coat. His black hair, coarse and curly as the filling of a mattress, was grey about the ears, his florid face showed little purple veins about his beaked nose, — a nose like the prow of a ship, with long nostrils. His chin was deeply cleft, his thick curly lips seemed very muscular, very much under his control, and, with his strong white teeth, irregular and curved, gave him the look of a man who could bite an iron rod in two with a snap of his jaws. His whole figure seemed very much alive under his clothes, with a restless, muscular energy that had something of the cruelty of wild animals in it. Niel was very much interested in this man, the hero of many ambiguous stories. He didn’t know whether he liked him or not. He knew nothing bad about him, but he felt something evil.
The cocktails were the signal for general conversation, the company drew together in one group. Even Miss Constance seemed less dissatisfied. Ellinger drank his cocktail standing beside her chair, and offered her the cherry in his glass. They were old-fashioned whiskey cocktails. Nobody drank Martinis then; gin was supposed to be the consolation of sailors and inebriate scrub-women.
“Very good, Frank, very good,” Captain Forrester pronounced, drawing out a fresh, cologne-scented handkerchief to wipe his moustache. “Are encores in order?” The Captain puffed slightly when he talked. His eyes, always somewhat suffused and bloodshot since his injury, blinked at his friends from under his heavy lids.
“One more round for everybody, Captain.” Ellinger brought in from the sideboard a capacious shaker and refilled all the glasses except Miss Ogden’s. At her he shook his finger, and offered her the little dish of Maraschino cherries.
“No, I don’t want those. I want the one in your glass,” she said with a pouty smile. “I like it to taste of something!”
“Constance!” said her mother reprovingly, rolling her eyes at Mrs. Forrester, as if to share with her the charm of such innocence.
“Niel,” Mrs. Forrester laughed, “won’t you give the child your cherry, too?”
Niel promptly crossed the room and proffered the cherry in the bottom of his glass. She took it with her thumb and fore-finger and dropped it into her own, — where, he was quick to observe, she left it when they went out to dinner. A stubborn piece of pink flesh, he decided, and certainly a fool about a man quite old enough to be her father. He sighed when he saw that he was placed next her at the dinner table.
Captain Forrester still made a commanding figure at the head of his own table, with his napkin tucked under his chin and the work of carving well in hand. Nobody could lay bare the bones of a brace of duck or a twenty-pound turkey more deftly. “What part of the turkey do you prefer, Mrs. Ogden?” If one had a preference, it was gratified, with all the stuffing and gravy that went with it, and the vegetables properly placed. When a plate left Captain Forrester’s hands, it was a dinner; the recipient was served, and well served. He served Mrs. Forrester last of the ladies but before the men, and to her, too, he said, “Mrs. Forrester, what part of the turkey shall I give you this evening?” He was a man who did not vary his formulae or his manners. He was no more mobile than his countenance. Niel and Judge Pommeroy had often remarked how much Captain Forrester looked like the pictures of Grover Cleveland. His clumsy dignity covered a deep nature, and a conscience that had never been juggled with. His repose was like that of a mountain. When he laid his fleshy thick-fingered hand upon a frantic horse, an hysterical woman, an Irish workman out for blood, he brought them peace; something they could not resist. That had been the secret of his management of men. His sanity asked nothing, claimed nothing; it was so simple that it brought a hush over distracted creatures. In the old days, when he was building road in the Black Hills, trouble sometimes broke out in camp when he was absent, staying with Mrs. Forrester at Colorado Springs. He would put down the telegram that announced an insurrection and say to his wife, “Maidy, I must go to the men.” And that was all he did, — he went to them.
While the Captain was intent upon his duties as host he talked very little, and Judge Pommeroy and Ellinger kept a lively cross-fire of amusing stories going. Niel, sitting opposite Ellinger, watched him closely. He still couldn’t decide whether he liked him or not. In Denver Frank was known as a prince of good fellows; tactful, generous, resourceful, though apt to trim his sails to the wind; a man who good-humouredly bowed to the inevitable, or to the almost-inevitable. He had, when he was younger, been notoriously “wild,” but that was not held against him, even by mothers with marriageable daughters, like Mrs. Ogden. Morals were different in those days. Niel had heard his uncle refer to Ellinger’s youthful infatuation with a woman called Nell Emerald, a handsome and rather unusual woman who conducted a house properly licensed by the Denver police. Nell Emerald had told an old club man that though she had been out behind young Ellinger’s new trotting horse, she “had no respect for a man who would go driving with a prostitute in broad daylight.” This story and a dozen like it were often related of Ellinger, and the women laughed over them as heartily as the men. All the while that he was making a scandalous chronicle for himself, young Ellinger had been devotedly caring for an invalid mother, and he was described to strangers as a terribly fast young man and a model son. That combination pleased the taste of the time. Nobody thought the worse of him. Now that his mother was dead, he lived at the Brown Palace hotel, though he still kept her house at Colorado Springs.
When the roast was well under way, Black Tom, very formal in a white waistcoat and high collar, poured the champagne. Captain Forrester lifted his glass, the frail stem between his thick fingers, and glancing round the table at his guests and at Mrs. Forrester, said,
It was the toast he always drank at dinner, the invocation he was sure to utter when he took a glass of whiskey with an old friend. Whoever had heard him say it once, liked to hear him say it again. Nobody else could utter those two words as he did, with such gravity and high courtesy. It seemed a solemn moment, seemed to knock at the door of Fate; behind which all days, happy and otherwise, were hidden. Niel drank his wine with a pleasant shiver, thinking that nothing else made life seem so precarious, the future so cryptic and unfathomable, as that brief toast uttered by the massive man, “Happy days!”
Mrs. Ogden turned to the host with her most languishing smile: “Captain Forrester, I want you to tell Constance” — (She was an East Virginia woman, and what she really said was, “Cap’n Forrester, Ah wan’ yew to tell, etc.” Her vowels seemed to roll about in the same way her eyes did.) — “I want you to tell Constance about how you first found this lovely spot, ‘way back in Indian times.”
The Captain looked down the table between the candles at Mrs. Forrester, as if to consult her. She smiled and nodded, and her beautiful earrings swung beside her pale cheeks. She was wearing her diamonds tonight, and a black velvet gown. Her husband had archaic ideas about jewels; a man bought them for his wife in acknowledgment of things he could not gracefully utter. They must be costly; they must show that he was able to buy them, and that she was worthy to wear them.
With her approval the Captain began his narrative: a concise account of how he came West a young boy, after serving in the Civil War, and took a job as driver for a freighting company that carried supplies across the plains from Nebraska City to Cherry Creek, as Denver was then called. The freighters, after embarking in that sea of grass six hundred miles in width, lost all count of the days of the week and the month. One day was like another, and all were glorious; good hunting, plenty of antelope and buffalo, boundless sunny sky, boundless plains of waving grass, long fresh-water lagoons yellow with lagoon flowers, where the bison in their periodic migrations stopped to drink and bathe and wallow.
“An ideal life for a young man,” the Captain pronounced. Once, when he was driven out of the trail by a wash-out, he rode south on his horse to explore, and found an Indian encampment near the Sweet Water, on this very hill where his house now stood. He was, he said, “greatly taken with the location,” and made up his mind that he would one day have a house there. He cut down a young willow tree and drove the stake into the ground to mark the spot where he wished to build. He went away and did not come back for many years; he was helping to lay the first railroad across the plains.
“There were those that were dependent on me,” he said. “I had sickness to contend with, and responsibilities. But in all those years I expect there was hardly a day passed that I did not remember the Sweet Water and this hill. When I came here a young man, I had planned it in my mind, pretty much as it is today; where I would dig my well, and where I would plant my grove and my orchard. I planned to build a house that my friends could come to, with a wife like Mrs. Forrester to make it attractive to them. I used to promise myself that some day I would manage it.” This part of the story the Captain told not with embarrassment, but with reserve, choosing his words slowly, absently cracking English walnuts with his strong fingers and heaping a little hoard of kernels beside his plate. His friends understood that he was referring to his first marriage, to the poor invalid wife who had never been happy and who had kept his nose to the grindstone.
“When things looked most discouraging,” he went on, “I came back here once and bought the place from the railroad company. They took my note. I found my willow stake, — it had rooted and grown into a tree, — and I planted three more to mark the corners of my house. Twelve years later Mrs. Forrester came here with me, shortly after our marriage, and we built our house.” Captain Forrester puffed from time to time, but his clear account commanded attention. Something in the way he uttered his unornamented phrases gave them the impressiveness of inscriptions cut in stone.
Mrs. Forrester nodded at him from her end of the table. “And now, tell us your philosophy of life, — this is where it comes in,” she laughed teasingly.
The Captain coughed and looked abashed. “I was intending to omit that tonight. Some of our guests have already heard it.”
“No, no. It belongs at the end of the story, and if some of us have heard it, we can hear it again. Go on!”
“Well, then, my philosophy is that what you think of and plan for day by day, in spite of yourself, so to speak — you will get. You will get it more or less. That is, unless you are one of the people who get nothing in this world. There are such people. I have lived too much in mining works and construction camps not to know that.” He paused as if, though this was too dark a chapter to be gone into, it must have its place, its moment of silent recognition. “If you are not one of those, Constance and Niel, you will accomplish what you dream of most.”
“And why? That’s the interesting part of it,” his wife prompted him.
“Because,” he roused himself from his abstraction and looked about at the company, “because a thing that is dreamed of in the way I mean, is already an accomplished fact. All our great West has been developed from such dreams; the homesteader’s and the prospector’s and the contractor’s. We dreamed the railroads across the mountains, just as I dreamed my place on the Sweet Water. All these things will be everyday facts to the coming generation, but to us — ” Captain Forrester ended with a sort of grunt. Something forbidding had come into his voice, the lonely, defiant note that is so often heard in the voices of old Indians.
Mrs. Ogden had listened to the story with such sympathy that Niel liked her better than ever, and even the preoccupied Constance seemed able to give it her attention. They rose from the dessert and went into the parlour to arrange the card tables. The Captain still played whist as well as ever. As he brought out a box of his best cigars, he paused before Mrs. Ogden and said, “Is smoke offensive to you, Mrs. Ogden?” When she protested that it was not, he crossed the room to where Constance was talking with Ellinger and asked with the same grave courtesy, “Is smoke offensive to you, Constance?” Had there been half a dozen women present, he would have asked that question of each, probably, and in the same words. It did not bother him to repeat a phrase. If an expression answered his purpose, he saw no reason for varying it.
Mrs. Forrester and Mr. Ogden were to play against Mrs. Ogden and the Captain. “Constance,” said Mrs. Forrester as she sat down, “will you play with Niel? I’m told he’s very good.”
Miss Ogden’s short nose flickered up, the lines on either side of it deepened, and she again looked injured. Niel was sure she detested him. He was not going to be done in by her.
“Miss Ogden,” he said as he stood beside his chair, deliberately shuffling a pack of cards, “my uncle and I are used to playing together, and probably you are used to playing with Mr. Ellinger. Suppose we try that combination?”
She gave him a quick, suspicious glance from under her yellow eyelashes and flung herself into a chair without so much as answering him. Frank Ellinger came in from the dining-room, where he had been sampling the Captain’s French brandy, and took the vacant seat opposite Miss Ogden. “So it’s you and me, Connie? Good enough!” he exclaimed, cutting the pack Niel pushed toward him.
Just before midnight Black Tom opened the door and announced that the egg-nog was ready. The card players went into the dining-room, where the punchbowl stood smoking on the table.
“Constance,” said Captain Forrester, “do you sing? I like to hear one of the old songs with the egg-nog.”
“Ah’m sorry, Cap’n Forrester. Ah really haven’t any voice.”
Niel noticed that whenever Constance spoke to the Captain she strained her throat, though he wasn’t in the least deaf. He broke in over her refusal. “Uncle can start a song if you coax him, sir.”
Judge Pommeroy, after smoothing his silver whiskers and coughing, began “Auld Lang Syne.” The others joined in, but they hadn’t got to the end of it when a hollow rumbling down on the bridge made them laugh, and everyone ran to the front windows to see the Judge’s funeral coach come lurching up the hill, with only one of the side lanterns lit. Mrs. Forrester sent Tom out with a drink for the driver. While Niel and his uncle were putting on their overcoats in the hall, she came up to them and whispered coaxingly to the boy, “Remember, you are coming over tomorrow, at two? I am planning a drive, and I want you to amuse Constance for me.”
Niel bit his lip and looked down into Mrs. Forrester’s laughing, persuasive eyes. “I’ll do it for you, but that’s the only reason,” he said threateningly.
“I understand, for me! I’ll credit it to your account.”
The Judge and his nephew rolled away on swaying springs. The Ogdens retired to their rooms upstairs. Mrs. Forrester went to help the Captain divest himself of his frock coat, and put it away for him. Ever since he was hurt he had to be propped high on pillows at night, and he slept in a narrow iron bed, in the alcove which had formerly been his wife’s dressing-room. While he was undressing he breathed heavily and sighed, as if he were very tired. He fumbled with his studs, then blew on his fingers and tried again. His wife came to his aid and quickly unbuttoned everything. He did not thank her in words, but submitted gratefully.
When the iron bed creaked at receiving his heavy figure, she called from the big bedroom, “Good-night, Mr. Forrester,” and drew the heavy curtains that shut off the alcove. She took off her rings and earrings and was beginning to unfasten her black velvet bodice when, at a tinkle of glass from without, she stopped short. Re-hooking the shoulder of her gown, she went to the dining-room, now faintly lit by the coal fire in the back parlour. Frank Ellinger was standing at the sideboard, taking a nightcap. The Forrester French brandy was old, and heavy like a cordial.
“Be careful,” she murmured as she approached him, “I have a distinct impression that there is someone on the enclosed stairway. There is a wide crack in the door. Ah, but kittens have claws, these days! Pour me just a little. Thank you. I’ll have mine in by the fire.”
He followed her into the next room, where she stood by the grate, looking at him in the light of the pale blue flames that ran over the fresh coal, put on to keep the fire.
“You’ve had a good many brandies, Frank,” she said, studying his flushed, masterful face.
“Not too many. I’ll need them . . . to-night,” he replied meaningly.
She nervously brushed back a lock of hair that had come down a little. “It’s not to-night. It’s morning. Go to bed and sleep as late as you please. Take care, I heard silk stockings on the stairs. Good-night.” She put her hand on the sleeve of his coat; the white fingers clung to the black cloth as bits of paper cling to magnetized iron. Her touch, soft as it was, went through the man, all the feet and inches of him. His broad shoulders lifted on a deep breath. He looked down at her.
Her eyes fell. “Good-night,” she said faintly. As she turned quickly away, the train of her velvet dress caught the leg of his broadcloth trousers and dragged with a friction that crackled and threw sparks. Both started. They stood looking at each other for a moment before she actually slipped through the door. Ellinger remained by the hearth, his arms folded tight over his chest, his curly lips compressed, frowning into the fire.
Niel went up the hill the next afternoon, just as the cutter with the two black ponies jingled round the driveway and stopped at the front door. Mrs. Forrester came out on the porch, dressed for a sleigh ride. Ellinger followed her, buttoned up in a long fur-lined coat, showily befrogged down the front, with a glossy astrachan collar. He looked even more powerful and bursting with vigour than last night. His highly-coloured, well-visored countenance shone with a good opinion of himself and of the world.
Mrs. Forrester called to Niel gaily. “We are going down to the Sweet Water to cut cedar boughs for Christmas. Will you keep Constance company? She seems a trifle disappointed at being left behind, but we can’t take the big sleigh, — the pole is broken. Be nice to her, there’s a good boy!” She pressed his hand, gave him a meaning, confidential smile, and stepped into the sleigh. Ellinger sprang in beside her, and they glided down the hill with a merry tinkle of sleighbells.
Niel found Miss Ogden in the back parlour, playing solitaire by the fire. She was clearly out of humour.
“Come in, Mr. Herbert. I think they might have taken us along, don’t you? I want to see the river my own self. I hate bein’ shut up in the house!”
“Let’s go out, then. Wouldn’t you like to see the town?”
Constance seemed not to hear him. She was wrinkling and unwrinkling her short nose, and the restless lines about her mouth were fluttering. “What’s to hinder us from getting a sleigh at the livery barn and going down to the Sweet Water? I don’t suppose the river’s private property?” She gave a nervous, angry laugh and looked hopefully at Niel.
“We couldn’t get anything at this hour. The livery teams are all out,” he said with firmness.
Constance glanced at him suspiciously, then sat down at the card table and leaned over it, drawing her plump shoulders together. Her fluffy yellow hair was wound round her head like a scarf and held in place by narrow bands of black velvet.
The ponies had crossed the second creek and were trotting down the high road toward the river. Mrs. Forrester expressed her feelings in a laugh full of mischief. “Is she running after us? Where did she get the idea that she was to come? What a relief to get away!” She lifted her chin and sniffed the air. The day was grey, without sun, and the air was still and dry, a warm cold. “Poor Mr. Ogden,” she went on, “how much livelier he is without his ladies! They almost extinguish him. Now aren’t you glad you never married?”
“I’m certainly glad I never married a homely woman. What does a man do it for, anyway? She had no money, — and he’s always had it, or been on the way to it.”
“Well, they’re off tomorrow. And Connie! You’ve reduced her to a state of imbecility, really! What an afternoon Niel must be having!” She laughed as if the idea of his predicament delighted her.
“Who’s this kid, anyway?” Ellinger asked her to take the reins for a moment while he drew a cigar from his pocket. “He’s a trifle stiff. Does he make himself useful?”
“Oh, he’s a nice boy, stranded here like the rest of us. I’m going to train him to be very useful. He’s devoted to Mr. Forrester. Handsome, don’t you think?”
“So-so.” They turned into a by-road that wound along the Sweet Water. Ellinger held the ponies in a little and turned down his high astrachan collar. “Let’s have a look at you, Marian.”
Mrs. Forrester was holding her muff before her face, to catch the flying particles of snow the ponies kicked up. From behind it she glanced at him sidewise. “Well?” she said teasingly.
He put his arm through hers and settled himself low in the sleigh. “You ought to look at me better than that. It’s been a devil of a long while since I’ve seen you.”
“Perhaps it’s been too long,” she murmured. The mocking spark in her eyes softened perceptibly under the long pressure of his arm. “Yes, it’s been long,” she admitted lightly.
“You didn’t answer the letter I wrote you on the eleventh.”
“Didn’t I? Well, at any rate I answered your telegram.” She drew her head away as his face came nearer. “You’ll really have to watch the ponies, my dear, or they’ll tumble us out in the snow.”
“I don’t care. I wish they would!” he said between his teeth. “Why didn’t you answer my letter?”
“Oh, I don’t remember! You don’t write so many.”
“It’s no satisfaction. You won’t let me write you love letters. You say it’s risky.”
“So it is, and foolish. But now you needn’t be so careful. Not too careful!” she laughed softly. “When I’m off in the country for a whole winter, alone, and growing older, I like to. . .” she put her hand on his, “to be reminded of pleasanter things.”
Ellinger took off his glove with his teeth. His eyes, sweeping the winding road and the low, snow-covered bluffs, had something wolfish in them.
“Be careful, Frank. My rings! You hurt me!”
“Then why didn’t you take them off? You used to. Are these your cedars, shall we stop here?”
“No, not here.” She spoke very low. “The best ones are farther on, in a deep ravine that winds back into the hills.”
Ellinger glanced at her averted head, and his heavy lips twitched in a smile at one corner. The quality of her voice had changed, and he knew the change. They went spinning along the curves of the winding road, saying not a word. Mrs. Forrester sat with her head bent forward, her face half hidden in her muff. At last she told him to stop. To the right of the road he saw a thicket. Behind it a dry watercourse wound into the bluffs. The tops of the dark, still cedars, just visible from the road, indicated its windings.
“Sit still,” he said, “while I take out the horses.”
When the blue shadows of approaching dusk were beginning to fall over the snow, one of the Blum boys, slipping quietly along through the timber in search of rabbits, came upon the empty cutter standing in the brush, and near it the two ponies, stamping impatiently where they were tied. Adolph slid back into the thicket and lay down behind a fallen log to see what would happen. Not much ever happened to him but weather. Presently he heard low voices, coming nearer from the ravine. The big stranger who was visiting at the Forresters’ emerged, carrying the buffalo robes on one arm; Mrs. Forrester herself was clinging to the other. They walked slowly, wholly absorbed by what they were saying to each other. When they came up to the sleigh, the man spread the robes on the seat and put his hands under Mrs. Forrester’s arms to lift her in. But he did not lift her; he stood for a long while holding her crushed up against his breast, her face hidden in his black overcoat.
“What about those damned cedar boughs?” he asked, after he had put her in and covered her up. “Shall I go back and cut some?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she murmured.
He reached under the seat for a hatchet and went back to the ravine. Mrs. Forrester sat with her eyes closed, her cheek pillowed on her muff, a faint, soft smile on her lips. The air was still and blue; the Blum boy could almost hear her breathe. When the strokes of the hatchet rang out from the ravine, he could see her eyelids flutter . . . soft shivers went through her body.
The man came back and threw the evergreens into the sleigh. When he got in beside her, she slipped her hand through his arm and settled softly against him. “Drive slowly,” she murmured, as if she were talking in her sleep. “It doesn’t matter if we are late for dinner. Nothing matters.” The ponies trotted off.
The pale Blum boy rose from behind his log and followed the tracks up the ravine. When the orange moon rose over the bluffs, he was still sitting under the cedars, his gun on his knee. While Mrs. Forrester had been waiting there in the sleigh, with her eyes closed, feeling so safe, he could almost have touched her with his hand. He had never seen her before when her mocking eyes and lively manner were not between her and all the world. If it had been Thad Grimes who lay behind that log, now, or Ivy Peters?
But with Adolph Blum her secrets were safe. His mind was feudal; the rich and fortunate were also the privileged. These warm-blooded, quick-breathing people took chances, — followed impulses only dimly understandable to a boy who was wet and weather-chapped all the year; who waded in the mud fishing for cat, or lay in the marsh waiting for wild duck. Mrs. Forrester had never been too haughty to smile at him when he came to the back door with his fish. She never haggled about the price. She treated him like a human being. His little chats with her, her nod and smile when she passed him on the street, were among the pleasantest things he had to remember. She bought game of him in the closed season, and didn’t give him away.
It was during that winter, the first one Mrs. Forrester had ever spent in the house on the hill, that Niel came to know her very well. For the Forresters that winter was a sort of isthmus between two estates; soon afterward came a change in their fortunes. And for Niel it was a natural turning-point, since in the autumn he was nineteen, and in the spring he was twenty, — a very great difference.
After the Christmas festivities were over, the whist parties settled into a regular routine. Three evenings a week Judge Pommeroy and his nephew sat down to cards with the Forresters. Sometimes they went over early and dined there. Sometimes they stayed for a late supper after the last rubber. Niel, who had been so content with a bachelor’s life, and who had made up his mind that he would never live in a place that was under the control of women, found himself becoming attached to the comforts of a well-conducted house; to the pleasures of the table, to the soft chairs and soft lights and agreeable human voices at the Forresters’. On bitter, windy nights, sitting in his favourite blue chair before the grate, he used to wonder how he could manage to tear himself away, to plunge into the outer darkness, and run down the long frozen road and up the dead street of the town. Captain Forrester was experimenting with bulbs that winter, and had built a little glass conservatory on the south side of the house, off the back parlour. Through January and February the house was full of narcissus and Roman hyacinths, and their heavy, spring-like odour made a part of the enticing comfort of the fireside there.
Where Mrs. Forrester was, dulness was impossible, Niel believed. The charm of her conversation was not so much in what she said, though she was often witty, but in the quick recognition of her eyes, in the living quality of her voice itself. One could talk with her about the most trivial things, and go away with a high sense of elation. The secret of it, he supposed, was that she couldn’t help being interested in people, even very commonplace people. If Mr. Ogden or Mr. Dalzell were not there to tell their best stories for her, then she could be amused by Ivy Peters’ ruffianly manners, or the soft compliments of old man Elliott when he sold her a pair of winter shoes. She had a fascinating gift of mimicry. When she mentioned the fat iceman, or Thad Grimes at his meat block, or the Blum boys with their dead rabbits, by a subtle suggestion of their manner she made them seem more individual and vivid than they were in their own person. She often caricatured people to their faces, and they were not offended, but greatly flattered. Nothing pleased one more than to provoke her laughter. Then you felt you were getting on with her. It was her form of commenting, of agreeing with you and appreciating you when you said something interesting, — and it often told you a great deal that was both too direct and too elusive for words.
Long, long afterward, when Niel did not know whether Mrs. Forrester were living or dead, if her image flashed into his mind, it came with a brightness of dark eyes, her pale triangular cheeks with long earrings, and her many-coloured laugh. When he was dull, dull and tired of everything, he used to think that if he could hear that long-lost lady laugh again, he could be gay.
The big storm of the winter came late that year; swept down over Sweet Water the first day of March and beat upon the town for three days and nights. Thirty inches of snow fell, and the cutting wind blew it into whirling drifts. The Forresters were snowed in. Ben Keezer, their man of all work, did not attempt to break a road or even to come over to the town himself. On the third day Niel went to the post-office, got the Captain’s leather mail sack with its accumulation of letters, and set off across the creek, plunging into drifts up to his middle, sometimes up to his arm-pits. The fences along the lane were covered, but he broke his trail by keeping between the two lines of poplars. When at last he reached the front porch, Captain Forrester came to the door and let him in.
“Glad to see you, my boy, very glad. It’s been a little lonesome for us. You must have had hard work getting over. I certainly appreciate it. Come to the sitting-room fire and dry yourself. We will talk quietly. Mrs. Forrester has gone upstairs to lie down; she’s been complaining of a headache.”
Niel stood before the fire in his rubber boots, drying his trousers. The Captain did not sit down but opened the glass door into his little conservatory.
“I’ve something pretty to show you, Niel. All my hyacinths are coming along at once, every colour of the rainbow. The Roman hyacinths, I say, are Mrs. Forrester’s. They seem to suit her.”
Niel went to the door and looked with keen pleasure at the fresh, watery blossoms. “I was afraid you might lose them in this bitter weather, Captain.”
“No, these things can stand a good deal of cold. They’ve been company for us.” He stood looking out through the glass at the drifted shrubbery. Niel liked to see him look out over his place. A man’s house is his castle, his look seemed to say. “Ben tells me the rabbits have come up to the barn to eat the hay, everything green is covered up. I had him throw a few cabbages out for them, so they won’t suffer. Mrs. Forrester has been on the porch every day, feeding the snow birds,” he went on, as if talking to himself.
The stair door opened, and Mrs. Forrester came down in her Japanese dressing-gown, looking very pale.
The dark shadows under her eyes seemed to mean that she had been losing sleep.
“Oh, it’s Niel! How nice of you. And you’ve brought the mail. Are there any letters for me?”
“Three. Two from Denver and one from California.” Her husband gave them to her. “Did you sleep, Maidy?”
“No, but I rested. It’s delightful up in the west room, the wind sings and whistles about the eaves. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll dress and glance at my letters. Stand closer to the fire, Niel. Are you very wet?” When she stopped beside him to feel his clothes, he smelled a sharp odour of spirits. Was she ill, he wondered, or merely so bored that she had been trying to dull herself?
When she came back she had dressed and rearranged her hair.
“Mrs. Forrester,” said the Captain in a solicitous tone, “I believe I would like some tea and toast this afternoon, like your English friends, and it would be good for your head. We won’t offer Niel anything else.”
“Very well. Mary has gone to bed with a toothache, but I will make the tea. Niel can make the toast here by the fire while you read your paper.”
She was cheerful now, — tied one of Mary’s aprons about Niel’s neck and set him down with the toasting fork. He noticed that the Captain, as he read his paper, kept his eye on the sideboard with a certain watchfulness, and when his wife brought the tray with tea, and no sherry, he seemed very much pleased. He drank three cups, and took a second piece of toast.
“You see, Mr. Forrester,” she said lightly, “Niel has brought back my appetite. I ate no lunch today,” turning to the boy, “I’ve been shut up too long. Is there anything in the papers?”
This meant was there any news concerning the people they knew. The Captain put on his silver-rimmed glasses again and read aloud about the doings of their friends in Denver and Omaha and Kansas City. Mrs. Forrester sat on a stool by the fire, eating toast and making humorous comments upon the subjects of those solemn paragraphs; the engagement of Miss Erma Salton–Smith, etc.
“At last, thank God! You remember her, Niel. She’s been here. I think you danced with her.”
“I don’t think I do. What is she like?”
“She’s exactly like her name. Don’t you remember? Tall, very animated, glittering eyes, like the Ancient Mariner’s?”
Niel laughed. “Don’t you like bright eyes, Mrs. Forrester?”
“Not any others, I don’t!” She joined in his laugh so gaily that the Captain looked out over his paper with an expression of satisfaction. He let the journal slowly crumple on his knees, and sat watching the two beside the grate. To him they seemed about the same age. It was a habit with him to think of Mrs. Forrester as very, very young.
She noticed that he was not reading. “Would you like me to light the lamp, Mr. Forrester?”
“No, thank you. The twilight is very pleasant.”
It was twilight by now. They heard Mary come downstairs and begin stirring about the kitchen. The Captain, his slippers in the zone of firelight and his heavy shoulders in shadow, snored from time to time. As the room grew dusky, the windows were squares of clear, pale violet, and the shutters ceased to rattle. The wind was dying with the day. Everything was still, except when Bohemian Mary roughly clattered a pan. Mrs. Forrester whispered that she was out of sorts because her sweetheart, Joe Pucelik, hadn’t been over to see her. Sunday night was his regular night, and Sunday was the first day of the blizzard. “When she’s neglected, her tooth always begins to ache!”
“Well, now that I’ve got over, he’ll have to come, or she will be in a temper.”
“Oh, he’ll come!” Mrs. Forrester shrugged. “I am blind and deaf, but I’m quite sure she makes it worth his while!” After a few moments she rose. “Come,” she whispered, “Mr. Forrester is asleep. Let’s run down the hill, there’s no one to stop us. I’ll slip on my rubber boots. No objections!” She put her fingers on his lips. “Not a word! I can’t stand this house a moment longer.”
They slipped quietly out of the front door into the cold air which tasted of new-fallen snow. A clear arc of blue and rose colour painted the west, over the buried town. When they reached the rounded breast of the hill, blown almost bare, Mrs. Forrester stood still and drew in deep breaths, looking down over the drifted meadows and the stiff, blue poplars.
“Oh, but it is bleak!” she murmured. “Suppose we should have to stay here all next winter, too, . . . and the next! What will become of me, Niel?” There was fear, unmistakable fright in her voice. “You see there is nothing for me to do. I get no exercise. I don’t skate; we didn’t in California, and my ankles are weak. I’ve always danced in the winter, there’s plenty of dancing at Colorado Springs. You wouldn’t believe how I miss it. I shall dance till I’m eighty. . . . I’ll be the waltzing grandmother! It’s good for me, I need it.”
They plunged down into the drifts and did not stop again until they reached the wooden bridge.
“See, even the creek is frozen! I thought running water never froze. How long will it be like this?”
“Not long now. In a month you’ll see the green begin in the marsh and run over the meadows. It’s lovely over here in the spring. And you’ll be able to get out tomorrow, Mrs. Forrester. The clouds are thinning. Look, there’s the new moon!”
She turned. “Oh, I saw it over the wrong shoulder!”
“No you didn’t. You saw it over mine.”
She sighed and took his arm. “My dear boy, your shoulders aren’t broad enough.”
Instantly before his eyes rose the image of a pair of shoulders that were very broad, objectionably broad, clad in a frogged overcoat with an astrachan collar. The intrusion of this third person annoyed him as they went slowly back up the hill.
Curiously enough, it was as Captain Forrester’s wife that she most interested Niel, and it was in her relation to her husband that he most admired her. Given her other charming attributes, her comprehension of a man like the railroad-builder, her loyalty to him, stamped her more than anything else. That, he felt, was quality; something that could never become worn or shabby; steel of Damascus. His admiration of Mrs. Forrester went back to that, just as, he felt, she herself went back to it. He rather liked the stories, even the spiteful ones, about the gay life she led in Colorado, and the young men she kept dangling about her every winter. He sometimes thought of the life she might have been living ever since he had known her, — and the one she had chosen to live. From that disparity, he believed, came the subtlest thrill of her fascination. She mocked outrageously at the proprieties she observed, and inherited the magic of contradictions.
On the evenings when there was no whist at the Forresters’, Niel usually sat in his room and read, — but not law, as he was supposed to do. The winter before, when the Forresters were away, and one dull day dragged after another, he had come upon a copious diversion, an almost inexhaustible resource. The high, narrow bookcase in the back office, between the double doors and the wall, was filled from top to bottom with rows of solemn looking volumes bound in dark cloth, which were kept apart from the law library; an almost complete set of the Bohn classics, which Judge Pommeroy had bought long ago when he was a student at the University of Virginia. He had brought them West with him, not because he read them a great deal, but because, in his day, a gentleman had such books in his library, just as he had claret in his cellar. Among them was a set of Byron in three volumes, and last winter, apropos of a quotation which Niel didn’t recognize, his uncle advised him to read Byron, — all except “Don Juan.” That, the Judge remarked, with a deep smile, he “could save until later.” Niel, of course, began with “Don Juan.” Then he read “Tom Jones” and “Wilhelm Meister” and raced on until he came to Montaigne and a complete translation of Ovid. He hadn’t finished yet with these last, — always went back to them after other experiments. These authors seemed to him to know their business. Even in “Don Juan” there was a little “fooling,” but with these gentlemen none.
There were philosophical works in the collection, but he did no more than open and glance at them. He had no curiosity about what men had thought; but about what they had felt and lived, he had a great deal. If anyone had told him that these were classics and represented the wisdom of the ages, he would doubtless have let them alone. But ever since he had first found them for himself, he had been living a double life, with all its guilty enjoyments. He read the Heroides over and over, and felt that they were the most glowing love stories ever told. He did not think of these books as something invented to beguile the idle hour, but as living creatures, caught in the very behaviour of living, — surprised behind their misleading severity of form and phrase. He was eavesdropping upon the past, being let into the great world that had plunged and glittered and sumptuously sinned long before little Western towns were dreamed of. Those rapt evenings beside the lamp gave him a long perspective, influenced his conception of the people about him, made him know just what he wished his own relations with these people to be. For some reason, his reading made him wish to become an architect. If the Judge had left his Bohn library behind him in Kentucky, his nephew’s life might have turned out differently.
Spring came at last, and the Forrester place had never been so lovely. The Captain spent long, happy days among his flowering shrubs, and his wife used to say to visitors, “Yes, you can see Mr. Forrester in a moment; I will send the English gardener to call him.”
Early in June, when the Captain’s roses were just coming on, his pleasant labors were interrupted. One morning an alarming telegram reached him. He cut it open with his garden shears, came into the house, and asked his wife to telephone for Judge Pommeroy. A savings bank, one in which he was largely interested, had failed in Denver. That evening the Captain and his lawyer went west on the express. The Judge, when he was giving Niel final instructions about the office business, told him he was afraid the Captain was bound to lose a good deal of money.
Mrs. Forrester seemed unaware of any danger; she went to the station to see her husband off, spoke of his errand merely as a “business trip.” Niel, however, felt a foreboding gloom. He dreaded poverty for her. She was one of the people who ought always to have money; any retrenchment of their generous way of living would be a hardship for her, — would be unfitting. She would not be herself in straitened circumstances.
Niel took his meals at the town hotel; on the third day after Captain Forrester’s departure, he was annoyed to find Frank Ellinger’s name on the hotel register. Ellinger did not appear at supper, which meant, of course, that he was dining with Mrs. Forrester, and that the lady herself would get his dinner. She had taken the occasion of the Captain’s absence to let Bohemian Mary go to visit her mother on the farm for a week. Niel thought it very bad taste in Ellinger to come to Sweet Water when Captain Forrester was away. He must know that it would stir up the gossips.
Niel had meant to call on Mrs. Forrester that evening, but now he went back to the office instead. He read late, and after he went to bed, he slept lightly. He was awakened before dawn by the puffing of the switch engine down at the round house. He tried to muffle his ears in the sheet and go to sleep again, but the sound of escaping steam for some reason excited him. He could not shut out the feeling that it was summer, and that the dawn would soon be flaming gloriously over the Forresters’ marsh. He had awakened with that intense, blissful realization of summer which sometimes comes to children in their beds. He rose and dressed quickly. He would get over to the hill before Frank Ellinger could intrude his unwelcome presence, while he was still asleep in the best bedroom of the Wimbleton hotel.
An impulse of affection and guardianship drew Niel up the poplar-bordered road in the early light, — though he did not go near the house itself, but at the second bridge cut round through the meadow and on to the marsh. The sky was burning with the soft pink and silver of a cloudless summer dawn. The heavy, bowed grasses splashed him to the knees. All over the marsh, snow-on-the-mountain, globed with dew, made cool sheets of silver, and the swamp milk-weed spread its flat, raspberry-coloured clusters. There was an almost religious purity about the fresh morning air, the tender sky, the grass and flowers with the sheen of early dew upon them. There was in all living things something limpid and joyous — like the wet, morning call of the birds, flying up through the unstained atmosphere. Out of the saffron east a thin, yellow, wine-like sunshine began to gild the fragrant meadows and the glistening tops of the grove. Niel wondered why he did not often come over like this, to see the day before men and their activities had spoiled it, while the morning was still unsullied, like a gift handed down from the heroic ages.
Under the bluffs that overhung the marsh he came upon thickets of wild roses, with flaming buds, just beginning to open. Where they had opened, their petals were stained with that burning rose-colour which is always gone by noon, — a dye made of sunlight and morning and moisture, so intense that it cannot possibly last . . . must fade, like ecstasy. Niel took out his knife and began to cut the stiff stems, crowded with red thorns.
He would make a bouquet for a lovely lady; a bouquet gathered off the cheeks of morning . . . these roses, only half awake, in the defencelessness of utter beauty. He would leave them just outside one of the French windows of her bedroom. When she opened her shutters to let in the light, she would find them, — and they would perhaps give her a sudden distaste for coarse worldlings like Frank Ellinger.
After tying his flowers with a twist of meadow grass, he went up the hill through the grove and softly round the still house to the north side of Mrs. Forrester’s own room, where the door-like green shutters were closed. As he bent to place the flowers on the sill, he heard from within a woman’s soft laughter; impatient, indulgent, teasing, eager. Then another laugh, very different, a man’s. And it was fat and lazy, — ended in something like a yawn.
Niel found himself at the foot of the hill on the wooden bridge, his face hot, his temples beating, his eyes blind with anger. In his hand he still carried the prickly bunch of wild roses. He threw them over the wire fence into a mud-hole the cattle had trampled under the bank of the creek. He did not know whether he had left the house by the driveway or had come down through the shrubbery. In that instant between stooping to the window-sill and rising, he had lost one of the most beautiful things in his life. Before the dew dried, the morning had been wrecked for him; and all subsequent mornings, he told himself bitterly. This day saw the end of that admiration and loyalty that had been like a bloom on his existence. He could never recapture it. It was gone, like the morning freshness of the flowers.
“Lilies that fester,” he muttered, “lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
Grace, variety, the lovely voice, the sparkle of fun and fancy in those dark eyes; all this was nothing. It was not a moral scruple she had outraged, but an aesthetic ideal. Beautiful women, whose beauty meant more than it said . . . was their brilliancy always fed by something coarse and concealed? Was that their secret?
Niel met his uncle and Captain Forrester when they alighted from the morning train, and drove over to the house with them. The business on which they had gone to Denver was not referred to until they were sitting with Mrs. Forrester in the front parlour. The windows were open, and the perfume of the mock-orange and of June roses was blowing in from the garden. Captain Forrester introduced the subject, after slowly unfolding his handkerchief and wiping his forehead, and his fleshy neck, around his low collar.
“Maidy,” he said, not looking at her, “I’ve come home a poor man. It took about everything there was to square up. You’ll have this place, unencumbered, and my pension; that will be about all. The live-stock will bring in something.”
Niel saw that Mrs. Forrester grew very pale, but she smiled and brought her husband his cigar stand. “Oh, well! I expect we can manage, can’t we?”
“We can just manage. Not much more. I’m afraid Judge Pommeroy considers I acted foolishly.”
“Not at all, Mrs. Forrester,” the Judge exclaimed. “He acted just as I hope I would have done in his place. But I am an unmarried man. There were certain securities, government bonds, which Captain Forrester could have turned over to you, but it would have been at the expense of the depositors.”
“I’ve known men to do that,” said the Captain heavily, “but I never considered they paid their wives a compliment. If Mrs. Forrester is satisfied, I shall never regret my decision.” For the first time his tired, swollen eyes sought his wife’s.
“I never question your decisions in business, Mr. Forrester. I know nothing about such things.”
The Captain put down the cigar he had taken but not lighted, rose with an effort, and walked over to the bay window, where he stood gazing out over his meadows. “The place looks very nice, Maidy,” he said presently. “I see you’ve watered the roses. They need it, this weather. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll lie down for a while. I did not sleep well on the train. Niel and the Judge will stay for lunch.” He opened the door into Mrs. Forrester’s room and closed it behind him.
Judge Pommeroy began to explain to Mrs. Forrester the situation they had faced in Denver. The bank, about which Mrs. Forrester knew nothing but its name, was one which paid good interest on small deposits. The depositors were wage-earners; railroad employes, mechanics, and day labourers, many of whom had at some time worked for Captain Forrester. His was the only well-known name among the bank officers, it was the name which promised security and fair treatment to his old workmen and their friends. The other directors were promising young business men with many irons in the fire. But, the Judge said with evident chagrin, they had refused to come up to the scratch and pay their losses like gentlemen. They claimed that the bank was insolvent, not through unwise investments or mismanagement, but because of a nation-wide financial panic, a shrinking in values that no one could have foreseen. They argued that the fair thing was to share the loss with the depositors; to pay them fifty cents on the dollar, giving long-time notes for twenty-five per cent, settling on a basis of seventy-five per cent.
Captain Forrester had stood firm that not one of the depositors should lose a dollar. The promising young business men had listened to him respectfully, but finally told him they would settle only on their own terms; any additional refunding must be his affair. He sent to the vault for his private steel box, opened it in their presence, and sorted the contents on the table. The government bonds he turned in at once. Judge Pommeroy was sent out to sell the mining stocks and other securities in the open market.
At this part of his narrative the Judge rose and began to pace the floor, twisting the seals on his watch-chain. “That was what a man of honour was bound to do, Mrs. Forrester. With five of the directors backing down, he had either to lose his name or save it. The depositors had put their savings into that bank because Captain Forrester was president. To those men with no capital but their back and their two hands, his name meant safety. As he tried to explain to the directors, those deposits were above price; money saved to buy a home, or to take care of a man in sickness, or to send a boy to school. And those young men, bright fellows, well thought of in the community, sat there and looked down their noses and let your husband strip himself down to pledging his life insurance! There was a crowd in the street outside the bank all day, every day; Poles and Swedes and Mexicans, looking scared to death. A lot of them couldn’t speak English, — seemed like the only English word they knew was ‘Forrester.’ As we went in and out we’d hear the Mexicans saying, ‘Forrester, Forrester.’ It was a torment for me, on your account, Ma’m, to see the Captain strip himself. But, ‘pon my honour, I couldn’t forbid him. As for those white-livered rascals that sat there, — ” the Judge stopped before Mrs. Forrester and ruffled his bushy white hair with both hands, “By God, Madam, I think I’ve lived too long! In my day the difference between a business man and a scoundrel was bigger than the difference between a white man and a nigger. I wasn’t the right one to go out there as the Captain’s counsel. One of these smooth members of the bar, like Ivy Peters is getting ready to be, might have saved something for you out of the wreck. But I couldn’t use my influence with your husband. To that crowd outside the bank doors his name meant a hundred cents on the dollar, and by God, they got it! I’m proud of him, Ma’m; proud of his acquaintance!”
It was the first time Niel had ever seen Mrs. Forrester flush. A quick pink swept over her face. Her eyes glistened with moisture. “You were quite right, Judge. I wouldn’t for the world have had him do otherwise for me. He would never hold up his head again. You see, I know him.” As she said this she looked at Niel, on the other side of the room, and her glance was like a delicate and very dignified rebuke to some discourtesy, — though he was not conscious of having shown her any.
When their hostess went out to see about lunch, Judge Pommeroy turned to his nephew. “Son, I’m glad you want to be an architect. I can’t see any honourable career for a lawyer, in this new business world that’s coming up. Leave the law to boys like Ivy Peters, and get into some clean profession. I wasn’t the right man to go with Forrester.” He shook his head sadly.
“Will they really be poor?”
“They’ll be pinched. It’s as he said; they’ve nothing left but this place.”
Mrs. Forrester returned and went to waken her husband for lunch. When she opened the door into her room, they heard stertorous breathing, and she called to them to come quickly. The Captain was stretched upon his iron bed in the antechamber, and Mrs. Forrester was struggling to lift his head.
“Quick, Niel,” she panted. “We must get pillows under him. Bring those from my bed.”
Niel gently pushed her away. Sweat poured from his face as he got his strength under the Captain’s shoulders. It was like lifting a wounded elephant. Judge Pommeroy hurried back to the sitting-room and telephoned Dr. Dennison that Captain Forrester had had a stroke.
A stroke could not finish a man like Daniel Forrester. He was kept in his bed for three weeks, and Niel helped Mrs. Forrester and Ben Keezer take care of him. Although he was at the house so much during that time, he never saw Mrs. Forrester alone, — scarcely saw her at all, indeed. With so much to attend to, she became abstracted, almost impersonal. There were many letters to answer, gifts of fruit and wine and flowers to be acknowledged. Solicitous inquiries came from friends scattered all the way from the Missouri to the mountains. When Mrs. Forrester was not in the Captain’s room, or in the kitchen preparing special foods for him, she was at her desk.
One morning while she was seated there, a distinguished visitor arrived. Niel, waiting by the door for the letters he was to take to the post, saw a large, red-whiskered man in a rumpled pongee suit and a panama hat come climbing up the hill; Cyrus Dalzell, president of the Colorado & Utah, who had come over in his private car to enquire for the health of his old friend. Niel warned Mrs. Forrester, and she went to meet the visitor, just as he mounted the steps, wiping his face with a red silk bandanna.
He took both the lady’s hands and exclaimed in a warm, deep voice, “Here she is, looking as fresh as a bride! May I claim an old privilege?” He bent his head and kissed her. “I won’t be in your way, Marian,” he said as they came into the house, “but I had to see for myself how he does, and how you do.”
Mr. Dalzell shook hands with Niel, and as he talked he moved about the parlour clumsily and softly, like a brown bear. Mrs. Forrester stopped him to straighten his flowing yellow tie and pull down the back of his wrinkled coat. “It’s easy to see that Kitty wasn’t with you this morning when you dressed,” she laughed.
“Thank you, thank you, my dear. I’ve got a green porter down there, and he doesn’t seem to realize the extent of his duties. No, Kitty wanted to come, but we have two giddy nieces out from Portsmouth, visiting us, and she felt she couldn’t. I just had my car hitched on to the tail of the Burlington flyer and came myself. Now tell me about Daniel. Was it a stroke?”
Mrs. Forrester sat down on the sofa beside him and told him about her husband’s illness, while he interrupted with sympathetic questions and comments, taking her hand between his large, soft palms and patting it affectionately.
“And now I can go home and tell Kitty that he will soon be as good as ever, — and that you look like you were going to lead the ball tonight. You whisper to Daniel that I’ve got a couple cases of port down in my car that will build him up faster than anything the doctors give him. And I’ve brought along a dozen sherry, for a lady that knows a thing or two about wines. And next winter you are both coming out to stay with us at the Springs, for a change of air.”
Mrs. Forrester shook her head gently. “Oh, that, I’m afraid, is a pretty dream. But we’ll dream it, anyway!” Everything about her had brightened since Cyrus Dalzell came up the hill. Even the long garnet earrings beside her cheeks seemed to flash with a deeper colour, Niel thought. She was a different woman from the one who sat there writing, half an hour ago. Her fingers, as they played on the sleeve of the pongee coat, were light and fluttery as butterfly wings.
“No dream at all, my dear. Kitty has arranged everything. You know how quickly she thinks things out. I am to come for you in my car. We’ll get my old porter Jim as a valet for Daniel, and you can just play around and put fresh life into us all. We saw last winter that we couldn’t do anything without our Lady Forrester. Nothing came off right without her. If we had a party, we sat down afterward and wondered what in hell we’d had it for. Oh, no, we can’t manage without you!”
Tears flashed into her eyes. “That’s very dear of you. It’s sweet to be remembered when one is away.” In her voice there was the heart-breaking sweetness one sometimes hears in lovely, gentle old songs.
After three weeks the Captain was up and around again. He dragged his left foot, and his left arm was uncertain. Though he recovered his speech, it was thick and clouded; some words he could not pronounce distinctly, — slid over them, dropped out a syllable. Therefore he avoided talking even more than was his habit. The doctor said that unless another brain lesion occurred, he might get on comfortably for some years yet.
In August Niel was to go to Boston to begin coaching for his entrance examinations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he meant to study architecture. He put off bidding the Forresters good-bye until the very day before he left. His last call was different from any he had ever made there before. Already they began to treat him like a young man. He sat rather stiffly in that parlour where he had been so much at home. The Captain was in his big chair in the bay window, in the full glow of the afternoon sun, saying little, but very friendly. Mrs. Forrester, on the sofa in the shadowy corner of the room, talked about Niel’s plans and his journey.
“Is it true that Mary is going to marry Pucelik this fall?” he asked her. “Who will you get to help you?”
“No one, for the present. Ben will do all I can’t do. Never mind us. We will pass a quiet winter, like an old country couple, — as we are!” she said lightly.
Niel knew that she faced the winter with terror, but he had never seen her more in command of herself, — or more the mistress of her own house than now, when she was preparing to become the servant of it. He had the feeling, which he never used to have, that her lightness cost her something.
“Don’t forget us, but don’t mope. Make lots of new friends. You’ll never be twenty again. Take a chorus girl out to supper — a pretty one, mind! Don’t bother about your allowance. If you got into a scrape, we could manage a little cheque to help you out, couldn’t we, Mr. Forrester?”
The Captain puffed and looked amused. “I think we could, Niel, I think so. Don’t get up, my boy. You must stay to dinner.”
Niel said he couldn’t. He hadn’t finished packing, and he was leaving on the morning train.
“Then we must have a little something before you go.” Captain Forrester rose heavily, with the aid of his cane, and went into the dining-room. He brought back the decanter and filled three glasses with ceremony. Lifting his glass, he paused, as always, and blinked.
“Happy days!” echoed Mrs. Forrester, with her loveliest smile, “and every success to Niel!”
Both the Captain and his wife came to the door with him, and stood there on the porch together, where he had so often seen them stand to speed the parting guest. He went down the hill touched and happy. As he passed over the bridge his spirits suddenly fell. Would that chilling doubt always lie in wait for him, down there in the mud, where he had thrown his roses one morning?
He burned to ask her one question, to get the truth out of her and set his mind at rest: What did she do with all her exquisiteness when she was with a man like Ellinger? Where did she put it away? And having put it away, how could she recover herself, and give one — give even him — the sense of tempered steel, a blade that could fence with anyone and never break?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52