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Title: Agatha's Aunt
Author: Smith, Harriet L. (Harriet Lummis)
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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AGATHA'S AUNT

by

HARRIET LUMMIS SMITH

Author of
Other People's Business


[Illustration]



Indianapolis
The Bobbs-Merrill Company
Publishers

Copyright 1920
The Bobbs-Merrill Company

Printed in the United States of America

Press of
Braunworth & Co.
Book Manufacturers
Brooklyn, N. Y.



CONTENTS


 CHAPTER                                       PAGE

 I Boarders Wanted                               1

 II The Curtain Rises                           18

 III A Social Secretary                         29

 IV Complications                               42

 V Company Manners                              57

 VI Hephzibah Comes to Life                     78

 VII Day Dreams                                 94

 VIII The Rescue                               109

 IX An Embarrassment of Riches                 124

 X A Confession                                140

 XI A Wilful Man Must Have His Way             155

 XII Hephzibah Turns the Tables                170

 XIII Congratulations Are in Order             184

 XIV Confidences                               196

 XV Underneath the Bough                       210

 XVI Miss Finch Follows a Classic Example      221

 XVII The Day of Judgment                      235

 XVIII Warren Gets a Tip                       249

 XIX The Worm Turns                            264

 XX The Day After                              276

 XXI Enlightenment                             292

 XXII Fellow Travelers                         305

 XXIII An Introduction                         324



AGATHA'S AUNT



AGATHA'S AUNT



CHAPTER I

BOARDERS WANTED


It was too early in the season for lowered shades or closed shutters.
The spring sunshine had taken possession of the big, many-windowed
room, repaying the hospitality as other uninvited guests have been
known to do, by its indiscreet revelations. In rooms much lived in, a
rather endearing shabbiness is a familiar characteristic, suggestive,
like a thumbed book, of homely comfort. The room in question had passed
this stage and reached the shabbiness eloquent of poverty.

The paper on the walls was faded, and stained from a leak in the
roof. The original carpet had been transformed into a rug that shrank
annually and now showed threadbare areas, prophetic of gaping holes
in the near future. The furniture, too, though of expensive make,
had arrived at a point where a series of surgical operations seemed
imperative. Yet with it all, a certain plucky defiance was evident
in the shabby room. Pictures or calendars hung over the discolored
spots on the wall, furniture arranged to conceal the weak spots of the
carpet, a crocheted shawl thrown carelessly over the exposed entrails
of a veteran armchair, a general air of putting the best foot foremost
inevitably suggested that the dilapidated building sheltered youth,
ardent and unconquered.

In the smallest chair the room contained, a rocking chair that creaked
protestingly under its light burden, sat Miss Zaida Finch, darning a
pink silk stocking. Miss Finch's print dress modestly concealed her
diminutive lower limbs, her extremely small shoes scarcely peeping
from beneath its hem. For all that the eye discerned, her anatomical
structure might have been modeled after that of Mrs. Shem in a Noah's
ark. Yet with no evidence to substantiate his certainty, any observer
would have vowed that Miss Finch's painstaking toil was wholly
disinterested. It was impossible to believe that the much-mended pink
silk hosiery formed part of her wardrobe.

The industry of Miss Finch was spasmodic. One moment she plied her
needle with an intentness indicating that her task absorbed her.
And again she let the stocking drop into her lap, and lost herself
listening to sounds overhead, footsteps, doors opening and closing, the
murmur of voices. Once, rising, she tiptoed to the window and gazed
for a long breathless moment at the touring car before the gate, the
chauffeur puffing a cigarette with an arrogance characteristic of the
driver of a seven-passenger Packard, who knows that at any moment a
Ford roadster may round the curve ahead.

Despite occasional lapses Miss Finch was darning industriously when
the voices overhead sharpened noticeably. A light staccato of high
heels tapping the uncarpeted staircase was followed by the slamming
of a door violently enough to shake the building. Miss Finch, groping
vainly for the interpretation of these sounds, found her gaze drawn to
the window as the Packard swept along the highway, its horn bleating an
impassioned farewell.

The door at the rear of Miss Finch's chair opened emphatically, with
such emphasis indeed, that the door-knobs parted company, one falling
into the hall, the other projecting itself in the direction of Miss
Finch as if with hostile intent. And close upon this demonstration
a girl entered the room and flung herself into one of the ragged
armchairs.

The owner of the pink silk stocking was revealed. It was all in keeping
with her audacious color scheme. Her hair was obviously red, and
instead of modestly disguising the fact, it used every known artifice
to attract attention to itself, curling and crinkling and brazenly
thrusting out tendril-like locks to catch the beholder's gaze. Her
eyes should have been blue, according to all precedent, but instead
they matched her hair, a daring reddish-brown, with yellow flecks like
floating gold-leaf. Ordinarily her skin was creamy till the multiplying
freckles of summer temporarily disguised its fairness, but at this
moment some intense emotion dyed her crimson from her throat to the
roots of her hair. Over a blue house dress she wore a sweater of vivid
green, assumed, if the truth be told, not for the sake of warmth but to
conceal her patched elbows. Her entrance into the room accentuated its
faded dinginess and bleached Miss Finch to the color of ashes. Even the
spring sunshine paled before her rainbow effect.

"Well, Fritz!" The girl used the incongruous nickname with the
carelessness of long custom. "It's all over."

"All over!" Miss Finch echoed in alarm. The darning egg dropped from
her lap and spun dizzily upon the floor, while its owner blinked
rapidly as if the radiant presence in the armchair dazzled her eyes.

"Yes. That was Mrs. Leavett, the one who saw my advertisement in the
_Onlooker_, and wrote and engaged board for herself and two children."

Miss Finch rolled her eyes heavenward. Under the matter-of-fact
statement she scented calamity.

"It occurred to her that she'd like to see the place before she came.
And now she's seen it, she's not coming. She says my ad was misleading."

"It was a very good advertisement, I'm sure," protested Miss Finch. "I
didn't know myself how pleasant the place was till you read me what
you'd written."

The girl laughed out. The naive defense had the effect of partly
dissipating her anger and bringing an evasive dimple into view.

"I leave it to you, Fritz, if I told a single whopper. I said the rooms
were large and airy, and I didn't state that the paper was peeling off
the walls. I mentioned the lawn and the shade trees, and failed to add
that the house needed painting. It is not the business of the seller,
Fritzie dear, to call attention to any little defects in the article
he is trying to dispose of. Mrs. Leavett overlooked that point. Not a
business woman, evidently."

"The vines cover a good bit of the house anyway," commented Miss Finch
resentfully. "What does a little paint more or less matter to a summer
boarder?"

"Mrs. Leavett seemed under the impression that it mattered to her.
She was so very snippy that at last I asked her if she didn't think
that to be _un_painted in these days was rather a mark of distinction.
Since you didn't see the lady, Fritz, you can hardly appreciate the
insinuating cleverness of that inquiry. The red, red rose has nothing
on her. Such a lovely, fast-color carmine, warranted to go through a
fainting fit without fading."

"If you're going to have boarders, Agatha," Miss Finch remonstrated,
"you've got to keep a tight rein on your temper."

"I did, Fritz; I was preternaturally amiable till I saw that the game
was up. Then I thought I might as well relieve my feelings. The woman
seemed to take it as an affront that I wasn't my own grandmother. She
said for a girl of my age to advertise for boarders was a piece of
presumption, and she wanted to know if I didn't have a guardian--as if
I were weak-minded."

Miss Finch's contemptuous sniff breathed sympathetic scorn.

"I'm not ashamed of being only nineteen. Everybody has to be nineteen
some time, except the people who die in infancy. As I said to Mrs.
Leavett, if you're too young, time will mend it. But being too old
isn't so easily remedied."

"Was _she_ old?" inquired Miss Finch suspiciously.

"Older than she wants any one to think, Fritz. She's the sort of woman
who talks about her little son when he's a sophomore in college,
smoking an enormous meerschaum." Agatha's angry color had subsided to
a becoming pink, and her eyes were luminous with mischief. "I'm going
to try the frank, open style in ads, since the other doesn't seem to
work. I shall want your opinion on it, Fritz, so prepare to give me
your undivided attention." She flitted to the writing desk and began
scribbling on the back of a convenient envelope and Miss Finch utilized
the pause to recover her elusive darning egg, dropping her thimble in
the process. Before she could capture the latter runaway, Agatha was
ready for her services as critic.

 "Boarders wanted. A spinster aged nineteen, of uncertain temper,
 will accommodate a limited number of boarders at her country place,
 Oak Knoll. Rooms large and airy, special ventilation secured through
 openings in the roof. In case of rain, guests will be furnished with
 tubs to catch the drippings, without extra charge. Fine lawn kept in
 excellent order by the untiring efforts of two horses and a cow. View
 unsurpassed. Meals excellent provided the cook is kept in good humor
 by considerate treatment."

She nipped the handle of her pen reflectively. "Do you think it
necessary to mention that the cook and the proprietor are one and the
same?"

"Agatha," cried Miss Finch with the agonized earnestness of a literal
mind, "you mustn't think of sending that to the paper. Taking boarders
is a good deal like getting married. There's a whole lot you've got to
keep dark, or you might as well give up first as last."

Her outburst terminated in a sniff. Immediately the tip of her pale,
seemingly bloodless little nose became as red as a cherry, the
instantaneous sequel of tears, with Miss Finch.

"You're so smart, Agatha," she quavered. "If only you'd sell this house
and wash your hands of Howard and me, who haven't the least claim on
you, you could go to the city and look around and like enough find a
husband. There's plenty of men who don't mind red hair."

Agatha ignored the encouragement. "Howard is my brother."

"Just like children pretend in play. He's your stepma's son. There's
not a drop of Kent blood in him, and not a mite of Sheldon in you. But
instead of giving your mind to getting married like a girl needs to do
in these days, you're all the time worrying about educating that boy."

"I'm going to send Howard to college if I live, I'd rather do that than
have twenty husbands."

"Then if that wasn't enough," lamented Miss Finch tearfully, "here I
am, a good-for-nothing cumberer of the ground, for you to fuss and plan
for. Don't tell me! All the reason you keep this place is to have a
home for me and Howard. And it ain't right or fair."

Agatha crumpled the advertisement inspired by the visit of Mrs. Leavett
into an inky wad, and took aim at the spider-like blotch on the
ceiling. Then crossing the room swiftly, she hugged the limp little
woman to her heart.

"You'll make me cry myself if you're not careful. You want to deprive
me of my family and my chaperon at one swoop, and turn me out into the
world a solitary orphan, you heartless creature." She silenced Miss
Finch's gurgled protests with a kiss. "Hush!" she said authoritatively.
"There comes Howard on the pony. He mustn't know anything about this."

The beat of hoofs ceased abruptly and a boy's swinging step sounded
on the porch. To save the trouble of walking ten feet to the door,
Howard raised the nearest window of the living-room, and made an
unconventional entry. He was a handsome lad of sixteen, and Agatha's
idol. She had been as ready as most young girls to resent her father's
second marriage, but all her childish hostility vanished at the
sequel, the chubby little boy who was her stepmother's contribution to
the family circle. She had longed for a brother with the passionate
yearning of a lonely child, and just when she had given up hope, a
brother was hers. Agatha's sense of proprietorship had grown with the
years. Nothing irritated her more than the suggestion that the tie
between Howard and herself was less binding than that of blood.

The boy drew three letters from his pocket, slapping them down on the
table.

"You're getting to be pretty popular, Aggie. Every time I go to the
village there's mail for you. Two letters yesterday and three to-day."

"How warm you look, Howard." Agatha pushed the boy's heavy hair back
from his moist forehead. "You mustn't get overheated and take cold."
She was deliciously maternal in her solicitude for the sturdy youngster
who already topped her by an inch or two.

"I'll look warmer before the day's over. I'm going to tackle the garden
now. If you'd ever seen summer boarders eat new green peas you'd know
'twas time to get busy."

Howard departed as he had come, and his sister, her face overcast, gave
her attention to her mail. The first letter opened was flung petulantly
to the floor.

"Woman wants to know how many bathrooms we have, and will I please send
her the names of several former patrons as references. Worse than Mrs.
Leavett."

"They're an unreasonable lot, summer boarders," acquiesced Miss Finch.

The second letter was as unsatisfactory, judging from the impetuosity
of its flight across the room.

"She's the widow of a missionary and wants board at half rates, and the
younger children not to count."

"I don't believe you've got the temper for running a boarding-house,"
commented Miss Finch. "You're as fiery as red pepper and next to the
married state, keeping boarders calls for a saintly disposition."

Agatha prying open the third communication with a hairpin, vouchsafed
no reply. But her perturbed air changed magically to breathless
attention. Her eyes moved slowly down the typewritten page, her air
of stupefaction increasingly in evidence. Checking herself with an
impatient gesture, she started again at the beginning and read the
letter aloud:

 "'My Dear Miss Kent:

 "'My attention has just been called to your advertisement in the
 current _Onlooker_. I can hardly hope that you remember me, for it is
 over twenty years since our last meeting, and at that time I was an
 insignificant urchin of twelve--'"

"Over twenty years," Miss Finch interjected, "and you nineteen last
week."

 "'I remember you distinctly, however, and your beautiful old place
 with its fine grounds and noble trees. When I explain that I am the
 son of John Forbes you will understand that my visit with my father
 was a memorable occasion. He died soon after, as you remember, but he
 often spoke of our week at Oak Knoll and his affectionate admiration
 for yourself.'"

A flicker of understanding illumined Miss Finch's blank face.

"I'm beginning to see daylight," she interrupted. "The man's fooled
by the likeness of names. He thinks he's writing to your great-aunt,
Agatha Kent. She'd be between sixty and seventy if she were living."

Agatha had already solved the puzzle. She nodded and read on, too
interested to pause for discussion:

 "'I have played in rather hard luck recently. I contracted a severe
 form of malaria in my South American trip last year which has
 resulted, strangely enough, in a loss of eyesight, only temporary,
 the doctors hope. For six months I have gone about with my eyes
 bandaged. At present the building up of my general health seems the
 most important step in my recovery and I wish to secure board in some
 retired country place with a bracing climate, like that of Bridgewater.

 "'In case you were willing to burden yourself with a blind boarder,
 I should, of course, insist on paying more than the moderate rates
 mentioned in your ad. I should also wish to engage the services of
 some youth in the neighborhood who could serve as valet and companion.
 I could bring an attendant from the city but would prefer a country
 boy, who would not be continually pining for roof gardens and like
 diversions. His work will be exacting, of course, for no child is as
 helpless as I, but I will pay well in addition to his board and will
 try to make his labors as agreeable as possible.

 "'I have written at length because I wish you to understand just
 what you are letting yourself in for, if you admit me to Oak Knoll.
 The remembrance of your benevolent face which even to my unobservant
 boy self seemed to express your kindly nature, is my only reason for
 thinking that possibly your answer will be favorable.

 "'Yours very truly,

 "'Burton Forbes.'"

Mechanically Agatha folded the letter and returned it to its envelope.
She spoke in a rapturous half whisper. "A blind man. If it had been
planned on purpose, it couldn't have been more perfect. Please don't
tell me I'm dreaming, Fritz."

Miss Finch rubbed her nose fretfully, a sign of perturbation. "Have you
thought--"

"He can't see that the paper is peeling off the wall," Agatha continued
ecstatically. "But he'll appreciate the rooms being large and airy. He
won't worry because the house needs painting, but he can enjoy sitting
under the shade of the trees. I can even feed him fried chicken while
the rest of us are eating cod-fish gravy. It's an interposition of
Providence."

Miss Finch was hectoring her nose again. "But how are you going to
manage--"

"He wants a boy as an attendant," persisted Agatha jubilantly. "Howard
is the boy. He'll pay him well, and pay me for his board. If only I'm
not delirious. Oh, I want to jump and scream. Howard's next year in
school is all provided for. And if Mr. What's-his-name would only stay
blind till--"

"I guess you're forgetting one thing." Miss Finch raised her voice
challengingly. "You ain't your great-aunt."

Agatha regarded the interruption with irritation. "Well!"

"It's her he wants to board with. He imagines she's a nice, motherly
old soul, who'll pet him up and feed him up. It ain't likely he'd think
of engaging board with a flighty young girl. I don't say you're not as
competent as though you were sixty. But he wouldn't believe it."

The glow illuminating the girl's face flickered defiantly under this
chilling blast of common sense, and went out, like a candle in the
wind. She drew her arched brows into a meditative pucker and sat
musing while Miss Finch, humanly complacent over having suggested a
difficulty, gave her whole attention to her darning, leaving Agatha to
wrestle with the solution.

"Fritz," the girl breathed at last, "do you believe in reincarnation?"

Miss Finch tried to look as if she understood the meaning of the word.
With an adroitness for which few would have given her credit, she
replied, "I won't say I do, and I won't say I don't."

"Well, it's true, Fritz. I am my own great-aunt."

"Land alive!" cried Miss Finch, startled into close attention.

"Mr. Burton Forbes wants to engage board for the summer with Miss
Agatha Kent. Well, I'm Agatha Kent. He imagines that I'm a nice
comfortable old lady with white hair and a double chin. Very well.
It would be a hard heart that would disappoint a blind man in such a
trifle."

"You mean," gasped Miss Finch, "that you're going to deceive him?"

"Heaven forbid. But I'm not going to _un_deceive him, Fritz. He assumed
certain things about me. Let him keep his illusions, poor soul. He'll
spend a happy summer with his father's old friend, and then go away and
recover, I hope."

No trace of Agatha's shadowing perplexity remained. Her eyes had the
mischievous brightness of a naughty child's. Miss Finch gazed aghast.

"He's bound to find out sooner or later. And no good comes of cheating
anybody, least of all a blind man."

"You're not the stuff for a conspirator, I can see that," Agatha
laughed. "You look positively frightened. But Howard will be delighted.
He'll feel like the hero of a detective story."

The window by which her brother had made his exit was still open and
Agatha took her departure in the same informal fashion. But little Miss
Finch sat bowed in her chair, as if the responsibility for this newly
hatched plot rested upon her narrow shoulders, and crushed her under
its weight.



CHAPTER II

THE CURTAIN RISES


The composition of a suitable reply to Burton Forbes' request proved
unexpectedly difficult. Agatha did not lack appreciation of the
histrionic demands of her rôle. She suspected the late John Forbes of
something more than a platonic admiration for her imaginary self and
it was out of the question to write his son the matter-of-fact letter
which would have sufficed for another blind man, desiring board in the
country. As she composed laborious missives only to destroy them on the
second reading, Agatha thanked heaven that the hardships of her lot had
not included the adoption of a literary career.

The completed letter, however, so far met her exacting requirements
that in satisfied contemplation of her intellectual offspring, she
forgot the pangs attending its birth. With a naive complacency not
unfamiliar among the craft, she read the masterpiece to Miss Finch:

 "My Dear Mr. Forbes:

 "Your letter, just received, both surprised and touched me. Your
 memory must, indeed, be tenacious if you recall me, for in the twenty
 years which have passed since your visit to Oak Knoll you have, I am
 sure, seen much better worth remembering than a quiet, old country
 woman the best of whose life is now its golden memories.

 "I hardly need tell you that my door would be open to your father's
 son under any circumstances, and the fact of your blindness--which I
 sincerely trust will prove temporary--only makes you doubly welcome.
 Fortunately I know exactly the person for your attendant, a young
 friend of mine named Howard Sheldon. He is thoroughly reliable and
 the salary will be a great help to him, as he is ambitious for an
 education.

 "Please let me know when to expect you. I am looking forward to
 renewing the friendship begun so long ago that it almost seems as if
 it must have been in another state of existence.

 "Very truly yours,

 "Agatha Kent."

Miss Finch did not share Agatha's enthusiasm. Her pinched little face
was wan and worried as she conscientiously did her best to dampen the
satisfaction of the proud author.

"That letter gives me a dreadful upset feeling, Agatha. I don't know as
I could put my finger on a downright lie, but it certainly ain't true."

"It is the truth and nothing but the truth, Fritzie. It is ridiculous
for a little four-page letter to claim to be the whole truth. Take, for
instance, the fact about his being doubly welcome because he is blind.
That's truer than he has any idea of."

"'Golden memories,'" quoted Miss Finch with severity. "A young girl
like you!"

"That's the best thing in the letter," cried Agatha, enraptured. "I
don't know how I ever came to think of anything so clever. 'Golden
memories,'" she repeated with the sentimental inflection she deemed
appropriate. "Do you know, Fritz, I don't believe it's as hard to write
books as the authors make out."

Disappointing as Miss Finch proved in the rôle of conspirator, Howard's
enthusiasm largely compensated for her deficiencies. Howard was in
his element. To share in a plot of this character was rapture beyond
words. The only drawback to his happiness was the fact that Agatha had
described him to his prospective employer as a reliable boy, ambitious
for an education. Howard felt that to live up to such a character
promised an insipid summer. It would have added a tang to existence had
he been cast for a refugee or a cowboy. It was with difficulty that
Agatha brought him to relinquish his determination to play some sort of
part.

"I could pretend to be an awfully ignorant cuss, don't you know, Aggie.
I could say 'betcher life' instead of 'yes,' and, 'not on your tintype'
for 'no.'"

Yielding to his sister's eloquent representations, Howard reluctantly
consented to confine himself to his normal mode of expression during
Mr. Forbes' stay and bend all his energy toward furthering his sister's
success in the impersonation fate demanded of her. His suggestions
proved an almost startling range of ingenuity. Agatha was to complain
frequently of rheumatic pains in her knees, and keep a cane handy for
strolling about the grounds. Another point on which Howard placed great
emphasis was the necessity of frequently mislaying her supposedly
indispensable spectacles.

"He'll be sure to suspect something," insisted Howard, "if you don't
keep losing your spectacles. Old folks always do. And when I find them
and bring them to you, you must always say that they are the ones you
use for looking far off and you want your reading glasses."

The exchange of several letters between Burton Forbes and his
prospective hostess resulted in an arrangement entirely satisfactory
from Agatha's standpoint. Her boarder was to make the trip from the
city without an attendant. Howard would meet him at the station with
the carryall and convey him to Oak Knoll, where Agatha would make
him welcome as the son of a friend long dead. The possibility of Mr.
Forbes' enlightenment through the interference of neighbors she had
met with characteristic decision by disseminating the information
that her home was to serve as temporary asylum for a blind gentleman,
broken in health and with an unconquerable aversion to society. Without
definitely reflecting on Mr. Forbes' mental condition, Agatha succeeded
in conveying the impression that any one attempting to interview her
blind boarder would do so at his own risk.

Youthful audacity, together with a daring peculiar to herself, carried
Agatha triumphantly through the successive stages of preparation. It
was not until Howard had actually driven to the station to meet the
expected arrival that she began to appreciate her own temerity in
committing herself to so reckless a scheme. To be an old lady for an
entire summer, to be discreet and dignified--sufficiently so at least
to deceive a blind man--began to seem to her a contract impossible to
carry out. Her knees weakened under her. An abnormal acceleration of
her pulses convinced her that she was more frightened than she was
willing to admit. As the time approached for Howard's return, she was
almost on the point of offering a prayer that Mr. Forbes had suddenly
decided on a summer in Canada.

The carryall drawn by the leisurely bays came in sight just when
apprehension was reaching the point of panic. Agatha strained her eyes.
Howard occupied the driver's place and in the comparative obscurity
of the back seat the outlines of a masculine figure were visible. Her
throat dry and her forehead unpleasantly moist, Agatha went out upon
the piazza to receive her guest.

Under ordinary circumstances Howard's passenger would not have seemed
a formidable personage. In spite of the disfiguring blue goggles, his
clear-cut features were distinctly prepossessing. Moreover, his air
of helplessness would have appealed to the maternal instinct of any
female five years old, and led her to constitute herself his protector.
Only a guilty conscience accounted for the shrinking with which Agatha
advanced to welcome him.

"How do you do, Mr. Forbes." She spoke in the repressed tones she
imagined befitting age, and her fluttering heart imparted a suitable
_tremolo_ to the greeting.

Forbes snatched off his hat and put out a groping hand. His abundant
brown hair, cut severely close, showed a well-shaped head. His voice,
too, was in his favor.

"Have I the pleasure--"

"I am Miss Kent." Agatha took his hand and quickly released it. "Bring
Mr. Forbes' suit-case, Howard. I suppose you'd like to go to your room,
Mr. Forbes. Shall I help you?"

She put her hand through his arm to guide him, her face aflame. Yet
her youthful zest for adventure was asserting itself and there was
something contagious in Howard's delight over actually embarking on
the anticipated conspiracy. Agatha's breathing steadied. She caught
Howard's eye and flashed a smile at him. The experience was like a
plunge into a mountain stream, exhilarating after the first shock was
over.

"This is very good of you, Miss Kent," Forbes was saying as they
ascended the wide staircase, side by side. "I shan't be quite so
helpless as this when I've once got my bearings." His voice took on an
interrogative note. "I hardly suppose you would have known me?"

Agatha threw him an appreciative glance. "I think it would be out of
the question for any one who had known you to forget you."

"Really?" He seemed pleased. "But surely I have changed."

"In twenty years? Certainly. Even I"--she smiled in enjoyment of her
own daring--"even I have changed since your last visit."

Howard, on the stairs behind them, coughed loudly by way of applause,
but Agatha's complacency was destined to be jarred. "Don't make rash
claims," the new arrival said severely, "I feel you're nothing but a
girl."

"I--I--"

"At least that is how you impressed me the first time I saw you--the
only time I've seen you," Forbes corrected, "as if you would never grow
old."

Agatha made a quick recovery. "I try to keep a young heart," she
replied demurely. "Now, Mr. Forbes, remember that when you get to the
top of the stairs you turn toward the front of the house, and the door
of your room is the first on your right."

The big front room for all its appalling shabbiness, was deliciously
airy. Forbes stood between the open windows and drew deep breaths.
"This is what I've been pining for without knowing it," he burst out.
"I have a presentiment that this air is going to be just the tonic I
need, and that I'll be seeing again in a week or two."

"I hope--so," lied Agatha with the jerkiness of one unused to
falsehood. "Howard, get Mr. Forbes everything he needs and bring him
down to the porch when he is ready, unless he would like to lie down."
She withdrew sedately and then atoned for her unnatural repression by
galloping down the stairs and falling upon Miss Finch, who, having
viewed the arrival from a convenient window, had withdrawn to her own
little rocking chair, a prey to lugubrious forebodings.

The panting Agatha revealed no traces of her late misgivings. "It's
ridiculously easy, Fritz, and the greatest fun. I believe I'd have made
a star actress. I honestly felt as old as the hills, exactly as if he
were a young fellow I'd known years ago, when he was a little boy. I
was almost tempted to smooth back his hair from his forehead--he has
such a nice thoughtful forehead, Fritz--and imprint a benevolent kiss
above his nose."

"Yes, I saw he was nice-looking," sighed Miss Finch. "Such a pity he
can't see. I've often thought I wouldn't mind marrying a blind man or
a cripple and sacrificing my entire life to making him happy. But I'm
afraid you'd tire of it, Agatha."

"I'm sure I should. It makes me tired even to think of such a thing,"
admitted Agatha shamelessly. "But you don't get my point of view,
Fritz. The kiss was to have been maternal or even grandmotherly. He
thinks I am an old lady and in spite of everything, I regard myself
from his standpoint. I never looked forward to a summer so much in all
my life. It'll be like going to a play morning, noon and night."

Voices sounded on the stairs, a man's deep notes blending pleasantly
with the fresh tones of a growing lad. Agatha seized Miss Finch's arm.

"Come out and meet him, Fritz. And I believe I'll begin calling you
Zaida. You're considerably younger than I, you know. Why, what's the
matter?"

Terror in her eyes, Miss Finch was resisting the friendly propulsion.
"I'm afraid to go near him. I'll be letting the cat out of the bag, and
I'm not going to have lies on my conscience even for you, Agatha."

With a laugh the girl released her. "Poor old Fritz, you never were
intended for a diplomatic career. But you'll get used to it. Train
yourself to think of me as some one venerable and stately, long, long
past the follies of youth." She advanced to the door with a dancing
step borrowed from Mrs. Vernon Castle as depicted on the screen, turned
to kiss her hand to the crushed Miss Finch, and disappeared in the
direction of the kitchen. And presently, mingling with the composite
fragrance of the garden and distant hay-fields, the appreciative
nostrils of Mr. Burton Forbes differentiated the less esthetic but
equally delectable odor of frying chicken.



CHAPTER III

A SOCIAL SECRETARY


In nineteen observant years Agatha had noted a business man's
invariable interest in the local telegraph service, and the tendency of
lovers to be dissatisfied with the mail facilities of the neighborhood.
The concern manifested by Burton Forbes on learning that the Rural Free
Delivery called at Oak Knoll but once a day, classified him definitely,
in Agatha's estimation.

"You can always send Howard to the village for the afternoon mail," she
suggested, the new warmth in her voice an unconscious demonstration of
the truth that all the world loves a lover.

"Thanks, that's fine!" The brightening of Forbes' face quite offset
his immediate conscientious warning that she was not to spoil him just
because she was sorry for him.

As the Rural Free Delivery brought nothing of consequence on the
morning following Forbes' arrival, Howard was despatched to the village
after the mid-day meal, leaving Forbes in Agatha's care. Agatha
conducted her charge to a creaking rocking chair, in the shadiest angle
of the porch, and shoved a foot-stool near. "Now I'll get my knitting,"
she said blithely, "and we'll talk."

Forbes seemed delighted. "It's too good to be true," he murmured. "I
thought they were extinct, the old ladies who sat knitting. It's like
stepping into the heart of an old-fashioned story."

Agatha smiled tolerantly. "It's clear you're just back from South
America. Up here everybody's knitting, young and old."

"But not like you," he insisted. "I am sure you have an air about it
that differentiates your knitting from all this kittenish frolicking
with balls of yarn." He turned his wistful face toward her as if it
helped to visualize the picture, and then added, "Just the hour for
confidences, isn't it?"

Agatha smiled at the dun colored wool in her lap. "A warm day, a cool
porch, an old lady knitting, and a young man in love. Of course it's
ideal for confidences."

He did not seem in any hurry to take advantage of the opening he had
asked for. "I'm afraid I'm going to impose on you," he said, after
so long a pause that she wondered whether he were planning to deny
her charge. "Howard is a bright kid, and I'm sure he'll prove a
satisfactory secretary, but there are a few letters I'd hate to dictate
to a boy." He laughed with rather an engaging air of shyness as he
added, "I imagine it won't be particularly easy to dictate them even to
you."

"Of course not," agreed Agatha, with ready sympathy. "Love-letters seem
one's own business more than almost anything in the world." His artless
confidences had brought a lovely color to her cheeks. Practical as
Agatha believed herself, she was romance-hungry, and it did not matter
in the least that in this particular love-affair she was cast for a
minor rôle. "And I'll read you her letters, too," she offered joyously.
"It will save Howard some trying experiences. Howard's just at the age
when he's horribly embarrassed by anything in the shape of sentiment."

"Thank you. I'd any amount rather you read them," returned Forbes
gratefully. "But they won't be sentimental letters, at all. Howard
could read them without finding a word that would bring a blush to his
maiden cheek."

"Oh!" observed Agatha blankly, and knitted to the end of her needle
without speaking. Apparently the path that had seemed so plain led
nowhere, after all.

Forbes, too, seemed in no haste to speak. "Of course," he explained at
last, "I'm very hopeful. If I make a complete recovery as the doctors
tell me I'm likely to do, there's no reason why things shouldn't be as
they were before."

Agatha laid down her knitting and regarded him fixedly, an upright
crease between her brows. The tranquillity of his unconscious face gave
the impression that she must have misunderstood him. "How were they
before?" she asked bluntly.

Apparently he did not question her right to a categorical answer. "We
had planned to be married in January till this came up. But of course I
couldn't hold a girl like Julia when there's a possibility of my having
to grope my way through life."

"No, of course not," agreed Agatha, with misleading calm. "But if she
were enough in love with you to plan to marry you in January, I should
suppose something would hold her, something you had nothing to do with."

There was a moment of rather tense silence. Then Forbes laughed out
boyishly:

"You dear old soul," he cried, "you don't know how mid-Victorian that
sounds. When you were a girl, women took all that sentimental stuff
seriously; about sacrificing themselves for love, I mean. But you don't
understand the modern girl. She's beyond that."

"I don't pretend to understand your Julia," agreed Agatha, her eyes
aflame, "I don't want to."

Forbes laughed again, this time with a reservation in his mirth. "Look
here," he said, "you mustn't criticize Julia, for then I can't talk
to you about her, and that would be a deuced bore. And she's a queen.
A girl of that sort is bound to know her value. Julia was really fond
of me, not desperately in love as I was--as I am--that wasn't to be
expected, but really fond of me and inclined to exaggerate ridiculously
my small achievements. But of course it's out of the question for her
to marry me if the rest of my life is to be a game of Blind Man's Buff."

"Per--perhaps so," Agatha stammered. One of her ready rages was coming
on. She felt it distinctly. One familiar symptom was that her blood
seemed boiling in her veins, and her ears felt hot and swollen. She had
seen them before when she was angry, flaming like two danger signals,
and tempering the redness of her hair. Her shaking hands made knitting
quite impossible. "Of course people can't marry if they haven't the
money to marry on," she succeeded in saying finally, in an unsteady
voice, "but there's nothing to keep them from loving each other till
they die, and having that comfort, anyway."

She had succeeded in making him very uncomfortable. She would have
known that by the way the rocking chair was creaking as he squirmed,
even if his astonished face had not borne witness to the facts in the
case.

"It--it is not a question of money," he explained stiffly. "I have
plenty, and so has she. We're not extravagant in our tastes, either of
us. The thing that's out of the question--" He seemed to find a little
difficulty in making it clear, after all, and floundered at this point.
"You can't think of it," he protested angrily, "tying a girl like
Julia, a beautiful, queenly creature, to a man who has to be led around
like a poodle dog. God! I couldn't be coward enough to accept such a
sacrifice."

"Oh, I understand, now." Agatha's anger was past the inarticulate
stage. She pulled a needle from her knitting, and brandished it
dangerously as she talked. "You mean that you wouldn't _let_ her
be engaged to you." The affected innocence of her voice was flatly
contradicted by the bitterness of her eyes. "You just insisted that
there shouldn't be anything more between you two till you were sure
that your eyes were going to be all right again. Well, I tell you
frankly that I think you've treated Julia brutally, and that she has a
right to detest you."

Apparently Mr. Forbes was losing confidence in his ability to make the
matter clear. He sighed patiently as he tried again.

"No, that isn't it. We were agreed perfectly on the subject. Love
isn't quite so reckless a passion as it was when you were young, Miss
Kent. Julia and I belong to a reasonable generation, tremendously
matter-of-fact. She was really cut up over the whole affair, but she
felt she owed it to herself to break the engagement since my future was
so uncertain, and I felt I owed it to her to release her. So we were
perfectly agreed, you see."

"Yes, I see." Agatha was glaring at him with the expression of a
vixen. "Just as businesslike as if you had been planning to go into
partnership to raise chickens, weren't you? And so that's what the
modern girl is like. Dear me!"

The edge to her voice made her irritation sufficiently plain, and
Forbes, with a gentle deference that touched her, changed the topic
to one unlikely to combat her old-fashioned prejudices. They were
discussing Thackeray and George Eliot when Howard returned. Swinging
himself from his pony, the boy came clattering along the porch, and
deposited a package of mail on his employer's knees.

"It's lucky I went over," Howard declared. "You've got a regular
windfall, five or six letters beside the things with one-cent stamps."

In spite of Mr. Forbes' assumption of ultra-modern reasonableness, his
countenance betrayed a boyish ardor that added to Agatha's resentment
against the recreant Julia. She took possession of the letters, saying
to her brother, "You'd better put the pony up, hadn't you, Howard? I'll
attend to Mr. Forbes' mail."

Her boarder only waited for the beat of the pony's hoofs to tell that
Howard was out of hearing, before he leaned toward her, his face
pathetically eager. "Is there one from her?"

"What's the post-mark?"

"She's probably at the Briercliff Manor, this week. She writes a
striking hand, not the old-time idea of feminine, but full of
character and strength. You'll always recognize it after you've seen it
once."

Unfortunately it appeared that Agatha's education in this important
branch of knowledge was not to begin immediately. There was no letter
from Julia. This fact established, the light went out of Forbes' face,
and it remained blank during the reading of several communications of
varying degrees of interest. For the first time he seemed an embodiment
of all the pitiful helplessness of the blind.

"I suppose," he ventured hesitatingly, when she had finished, "that
you're too busy to take a letter for me to-day. Got to go on with that
knitting, haven't you?"

Agatha longed to say yes. In her present mood, to transcribe an
impassioned letter to the object of Forbes' regard, seemed well-nigh
intolerable. Inexorably she forced herself to reply that she was not in
the least busy. "I'll get Howard out of the way by sending him to the
garden," she added. "He'll be perfectly willing to change jobs with me."

Howard, who had the average boy's aversion to the use of a pen, bore
out her statement and joyfully agreed to picking peas in place of
acting as an amanuensis. He went his way, favoring her with an almost
ribald wink, a natural reaction from the profound respect he was now
required to show her. With an expression that would have befitted Queen
Elizabeth, when signing the death-warrant of Lady Jane Grey, Agatha
began her task.

Forbes' mood, though disappointed, was not reproachful. His pale face
flushing slightly at the novel experience of giving voice to such
tender sentiments in the presence of a third person, he dictated the
letter with only those pauses necessary to enable Agatha to keep pace
with him.

 "My Dearest Girl.

 "The afternoon mail has just been brought from the village, and I was
 disappointed at not receiving a letter from you. Disappointed I am,
 but not surprised, for I am sure that wherever you are, you will have
 little time to yourself unless you take it by main force, so to speak.
 That is the penalty I pay for being in love with one so charming.

 "I wish you could look in on me here, at the home of my father's old
 friend, Miss Agatha Kent. Oak Knoll is a fine old place. The house is
 spacious, comfortable and homelike, the last characteristic doubtless
 due to the personality of the owner. As Miss Kent is good enough to
 write this for me, I must wait some other opportunity to tell you how
 delightful I find her. Her type is disappearing, unluckily, which
 makes me all the more ready to congratulate myself on this chance of
 renewing a friendship which might almost be regarded as an inheritance.

 "The troublesome eyes pained me a little last night, but lying awake
 was not altogether fruitless, as in the stillness I could bring your
 dear face before me almost as vividly as if I saw it in the flesh.
 To-day I feel much better. I am convinced that this wonderful air is
 going to make me over, and then in a few weeks I shall again have a
 right to indulge myself in the dreaming of those dreams which need no
 Daniel to interpret them."

Forbes' deep voice came to a halt at this point. He turned his face
toward Agatha, the involuntary movement showing that his blindness was
not of long duration, and smiled with that winsome boyishness which
made it impossible to believe him past thirty.

"I believe I'll take my pen in hand for the wind-up, if you please,
Miss Kent. I think I can manage a line or two, without making it
illegible."

She brought the sheet to him, put the pen in his hand, and indicated
where he was to begin to write. And then suddenly as she watched him,
the outline of his fine profile was blurred by angry tears. Something
in his expression gave her an inkling of the tenderness compressed in
those few straggling lines, and all for the girl who had "owed it to
herself" to break her engagement because of his misfortune.

"She owes it to herself to break with him," reflected Agatha, "but she
doesn't owe it to him to make it final, and give him a chance to get
over it Oh, no! He can go on to the end of his life dreaming about
her, and making love to her, and feeding her vanity by his devotion.
And then he calls that deliberate heartlessness reasonable, and makes
himself believe that she's the type of the modern girl. The cat!"

Agatha's righteous indignation was getting the best of her. She said
the last two words aloud.

"Beg pardon!" Forbes turned, showing a puzzled face.

"The cat is rather near the chickens," Agatha explained. "If you'll
excuse me, I'll run down and drive her away." She started at a pace
which would have been reckless for rheumatic knees, recalled herself,
and slowed down till beyond his hearing. Then she stood quite still and
stamped her foot upon the gravel like a restive horse, till she felt
better.

When she returned, flushed but calm, the letter was completed and
folded. "Haven't any asbestos envelopes, have you?" questioned Forbes,
trying to make a joke out of his bit of sentiment. "I've made it
hot stuff, I assure you." And then he acknowledged that an ordinary
envelope would probably retain his ardent effusion without bursting
into flame, and Agatha wrote the name she already hated, eying each
letter malevolently, as she set it down:

 Miss Julia Studley
 Briercliff Manor
 Briercliff, New York

Howard took her aside that night to thank her for relieving him of an
obnoxious task. "It's the only part of the work I mind, writing those
darned letters. Does he make 'em long?"

"A great deal too long," said Agatha, "and I don't blame you for hating
that job. It's rotten."



CHAPTER IV

COMPLICATIONS


For a week Forbes' spirits were fitful. Morning after morning, the
Rural Free Delivery brought a variety of offerings, and disappointment
along with the rest. Each afternoon Howard rode to the village, and
though he never returned empty-handed, he might as well have done so,
since he failed to bring the right letter. Had it not been for Agatha,
Forbes' depression might easily have become serious. She spent with him
all the time she could spare, even shelling peas and whipping cream
upon the porch within arm's length of his chair. Whatever opinion he
expressed, she promptly disagreed. She railed at modern institutions.
She professed unbounded contempt for the modern girl. She was as
prickly as a chestnut burr, as puckery as an unripe persimmon, as
ruffling as a January gale. But she gained her point. Forbes did not
mope.

In that week of waiting, she wrote at his dictation three letters to
Julia, all of them ardently tender, and quite uncomplaining. Though he
confessed to disappointment over not hearing from her, he did not seem
to question that it was her privilege to keep him waiting her pleasure.
His humility aroused Agatha to a fury of protest. She dotted her "i's"
as if she were stabbing the paper, and crossed her "t's" with a sweep,
like the slash of a knife. Her valorous instinct to champion the cause
of the under dog had never been so constantly in evidence.

The table at Oak Knoll was extremely good that week. In addition to
distracting Forbes' thoughts by continually opposing him, Agatha
concentrated her attention on making him eat. The fundamental common
sense, underlying like granite her girlish caprices and audacity,
assured her that an aching heart was in some mysterious fashion
relieved by a full stomach. The price Forbes had insisted on paying
for his board had seemed to her excessive, and now it justified her in
trying her choicest recipes. And while Forbes' mood would have made it
easy for him to be quite indifferent to what was set before him, thanks
to these tactics he ate with a rather shamefaced relish, and assured
Agatha that cooks of her sort had all been born before the Civil War.

At the end of a trying week, the looked-for letter arrived. Agatha
herself took it from the mail box at the end of the long drive, and she
eyed it as if it had been a new species of noxious insect. Though she
had never seen Julia's chirography, she instantly recognized it, even
without the aid of the post-mark. The letter was a long one, evidently,
for it had called for double postage.

Agatha walked rapidly back to the house, congratulating herself that
her duties would be less onerous, at least till the stimulating effect
of this letter had worn away. She beckoned to Howard, who was escorting
Forbes about the grounds on his morning constitutional, and despatched
him on some unnecessary errand, while she took his place at Forbes'
side. "It's come," she said briefly.

Though terse, the statement was quite intelligible. Forbes put out his
hand eagerly, and she saw it was trembling. She gave him the letter,
conscious of a pity that had a mixture of contempt. "Shall I read it to
you?" she asked.

"Why, of course. What am I thinking of! Shall we go to the porch? It
seems like a fat fellow, and I don't want to keep you standing."

Agatha put her hand through his arm and steered him in the direction
of the house. She noticed the shadow on his face had lifted. A little
color had come to his cheeks, and his sensitive mouth seemed on the
point of smiling. She felt that she despised his weakness in letting
himself be played upon by the caprices of a heartless girl, but at the
same time, she wanted to cry. And Forbes, as if suspecting her mood,
entertained her as they walked, by making fun of himself and of the
rapture he could not hide.

"What do you think, Miss Kent? Will you be equal to reading this to me
every day till the next one comes?"

"I suppose," said Agatha with resignation, "that I can stand it if you
can."

"Oh, there won't be any difficulty as far as I'm concerned. In fact,
if my eyes were normal, I should probably read it several times a day,
whenever I had a minute to spare. But I haven't the nerve to impose on
you to that extent."

"Heaven forbid!" cried Agatha devoutly, and he broke into hilarious
laughter. Agatha reflected that if this was the result of falling in
love, the longer that catastrophe was postponed, the better.

Forbes had been quite correct in saying that Julia's letter would
not be sentimental. Howard could have read it without the slightest
embarrassment. She apologized casually for not having written earlier,
and by way of explanation gave a list of her engagements for the past
two weeks, a device which lent her letter the effect of the society
column in a Sunday newspaper, and accounted for the double postage.
The names of several men appeared frequently in her record, and it
was evident that Forbes was not the only one of his sex to recognize
her charm. She even quoted one or two compliments she had received,
as if certain of his sympathetic pleasure in her popularity, and his
expression as he listened seemed to justify her confidence.

On the last page of the fifteen, Julia detached herself from this
fascinating theme, and touched on his affairs. She was glad he was
better and she was sure he must enjoy Oak Knoll. She thought those old
colonial houses simply lovely and from his description, Miss Kent was a
perfect dear. It was good of him to write so often for she was always
glad to hear, and she was very cordially his friend, Julia.

Agatha laid down the letter, hardly able to keep back the scornful
comment that rushed to her lips like a hemorrhage. She was rather in
hopes Forbes would say it himself. The shallowness of the missive, its
unabashed vanity, its colossal selfishness were so apparent to her
intelligence that she half expected to have Forbes break the silence by
congratulating himself on his escape from marrying Julia in January.
With this thought in her mind, the fatuous complacency indicated by
Forbes' tone came in the nature of a shock.

"She's a bit irregular as a correspondent, but when she does write, you
see it's some letter."

Agatha digested this in silence.

"You can gather from this," continued the unconscious Mr. Forbes, "how
popular she is. Wherever she goes, she's the center of attention."

Since it gave him pleasure to continue in this strain, and Agatha was
not really hard-hearted, she composed herself to listen till Howard's
return. But the sight of her brother's slender figure in the distance
was peculiarly welcome. By dint of vehement gestures, she induced him
to exchange his sauntering gait for a run, and so shortened her ordeal
perceptibly.

Howard looked from the frowning girl to the smiling young man with
perplexity. For several days Forbes' depression had weighed on the
boy's spirits. And now Mr. Forbes was grinning like a chessy cat,
and Aggie looked mad enough to bite a nail in two. Howard continued
to stare till by a sweeping gesture Agatha indicated her wish to be
left to herself. For some time Forbes had gone through the program
of exercise his physician had outlined with a listlessness which
proved his lack of interest. Now as Howard suggested continuing their
interrupted walk, he clapped the boy on the shoulder, seized his arm
and the two went off laughing. And Agatha, recalling his boast that he
was a representative of a generation remarkable for its reasonableness,
smiled sourly and significantly after his departing figure, and asked
herself whether all men were fools, or only the nice ones.

In her valiant effort to sustain Forbes' spirits, Agatha had for some
days neglected her household duties, and she profited by his temporary
accession of cheerfulness to despatch a number of pressing duties,
aided by Phemie Tidd, the daughter of a neighboring farmer. The most
notable characteristic of Phemie was her stupidity, and though Agatha
had sometimes found this trying, in the present emergency she derived
satisfaction from the certainty that nature had rendered it impossible
for Phemie to find out anything on her own initiative. Whether she was
positively weak-minded or not was a question on which the community did
not agree, but under careful supervision she accomplished rather more
work than would have seemed possible, considering her mental equipment.

As there was no immediate prospect of another letter from Julia,
Howard was excused from his afternoon trips to the village, and left
to discharge his secretarial duties unassisted. For this reason Agatha
was several hours late in learning an important bit of news. It was
approaching noon on Friday when she came out upon the porch flushed and
weary, after a strenuous morning, and dropped into a chair near that
which Forbes was occupying. Though the young man was alone, his mood
was evidently cheerful. As she approached him, his smile challenged her
attention, and she pondered with frank amazement on the extraordinary
effect of Julia's inane letter.

"It's Miss Kent, isn't it?" Forbes looked boyishly pleased over having
guessed correctly. "I am beginning to enjoy some of the perquisites of
blindness. I can recognize the footsteps of all of you. Do you know
you walk with wonderful lightness for a woman of your age?"

Agatha immediately resolved to begin wearing a pair of Howard's
slippers, which could be kept on only by dragging her feet.

"I've been wanting to see you all the morning," continued Forbes
light-heartedly. "I've great news for you. We're going to have company."

"Company!" Had Forbes' sense of hearing reached the stage of acuteness
he fondly imagined, he would have recognized instantly a note of
wildness in Agatha's exclamation.

"Had a letter this morning from a pal of mine, fellow I knew in
college. He's coming to-morrow to spend Sunday with me."

"To spend Sunday!" Even though Forbes was unable to perceive the frozen
horror of Agatha's countenance, her appalled tone convinced him that
something was wrong. His smile gave way to an expression of anxiety.

"It won't inconvenience you to put him up, will it, Miss Kent?"

Agatha found herself unable to reply. Her castle in the air was about
to topple. A friend of Forbes was coming, and his would be as eyes to
the blind. Through him Forbes would learn that the house was in need
of painting and shingling and papering, that the furniture was in all
stages of dilapidation, and that she herself was not an elderly lady
with a motherly interest in youth, but a mere girl with a surprising
facility in falsehood. And while these agonized forebodings flitted
through her brain, Forbes was offering dismayed apologies.

"I beg your pardon a thousand times. I should have realized--Of course,
this isn't a boarding-house, but the fact that you advertised for
boarders, misled me, don't you see? If Warren's coming is going to put
you out at all, I'll have Howard telegraph him at once."

Agatha came to herself. There was risk, of course, in granting
permission for his friend's visit, yet anything was better, even
discovery, than that she should appear inhospitable. Her cheeks grew
hot as she recalled his generosity and saw him confused and apologetic
over having asked a friend to solace his loneliness for a week-end.

"Indeed you shall do nothing of the kind," she said with authority.
"You didn't understand me. I'm only sorry not to meet your friend. I
expect to be away over Sunday."

"Oh, but that's bad. I particularly wanted Warren to see you. We might
telegraph him to make it Sunday week."

Agatha vetoed the suggestion. It was better that Mr. Warren should come
as he had planned. "And besides," she added with swift return of her
normal audacity, "if he is here you won't miss me so much."

"I shall miss you under any and all circumstances, dear lady." Forbes'
air of animation had returned, and it was so great a relief to see him
smiling again, that she resolutely shut her eyes to the pitfalls ahead.

"I shall get a girl from the neighborhood to do the cooking," explained
Agatha. "And Miss Finch will mother you all in my place."

"But not in your way." Forbes had a confused but unflattering
impression of Miss Finch, due to the fact that she never dared trust
herself to converse with him for more than a minute at a time, for
fear of making some unfortunate revelation. "And I'm sorry," he ended
regretfully, "that Warren's not to taste your cooking."

"Oh, Hephzibah is exactly as good. I trained her."

"Good Heavens! You don't mean there's a living woman with a name like
that."

"Oh, do you think Hephzibah an odd name? It wasn't uncommon when I was
a girl." Agatha felt that she had taken leave of reason as well as of
principle. "Hephzibah Diggs," she repeated thoughtfully. "I suppose it
would have rather a quaint sound to any one not used to it."

"It's a name for the vaudeville stage," said Mr. Forbes with
conviction. He returned to the subject of Agatha's other substitute. "I
suppose Warren will have a chance to get more of an impression of Miss
Finch than I have succeeded in doing, for he'll have his eyes to help
him out. All I have been able to discover is that she never finishes
her sentences."

"She's shy with men, poor girl," said Agatha, and then as he looked
puzzled, "Of course she seems quite elderly to you, but to me she's
only a girl."

Forbes whistled softly, shaking his head. "A blind man would credit you
with immortal youth, and convict her of never having been less than
middle-aged. I begin to believe that eyesight is misleading."

Agatha broke away from him before her mood of reprehensible
recklessness should have implicated her still further. Then in the
seclusion of her own room, she wept. "It's bad enough to stretch the
truth when I positively can't help it," she told herself, "but this
morning I simply wallowed in falsehood. And now I must live up to
Hephzibah Diggs. Why couldn't I have called her Mamie Thompson? It's
all the fault of that atrocious Warren person, and I wish something
would happen to him on the way down. I suppose it's too much to hope
for a railway accident, with only one passenger killed, but that would
serve him exactly right."

Agatha's courage did not revive until she undertook to prepare Miss
Finch for the responsibilities which would devolve upon her in the
absence of the mistress of the house. Her pale eyes became unnaturally
prominent as Agatha explained.

"Agatha, I can't. I'd go through fire and water for you, but I can't
have a lie on my conscience. At my age I've got to prepare for death,
any day, and I can't be loading my soul down with mortal sin."

"Oh, Fritz, don't be so foolish. It's not necessary to lie." Agatha's
conscience gave a twinge like an uneasy tooth, as she recalled her
entirely gratuitous inventions of the morning. "All you have to do is
to keep from telling the truth."

"You can do it all right, you're so quick-witted, but I have to have
time."

Agatha had an inspiration. "If he says anything you don't know how to
answer, pretend you're hard of hearing. And make him keep repeating it
over till he gets tired, or you've thought of something to say."

Miss Finch showed no inclination to rejoice over this simple solution
of her difficulty. Her thin nose reddened as abruptly as if it had been
pinched, and her eyes filled.

"I know I'm going to make a mess of things. I've felt from the start
that no good could come of cheating a blind man. And after you go
to-morrow--"

"But I'm not really going, Fritz. Somebody must do the cooking. I shall
be in the kitchen, and my name will be Hephzibah Diggs."

"Hephzibah Diggs!" Miss Finch repeated, appalled. "You're going to be
somebody else?"

"Only till Mr. Warren gets out of the house."

"And you picked out that name yourself, just for the fun of it?"

Agatha reddened under her old friend's accusing gaze. "I had to have
some name," she protested weakly.

"You didn't have to have that. It almost looks to me as if you were
getting where you took pleasure in deception."

As this only echoed Agatha's self-accusation, she exclaimed, "The
idea!" with an air of indignant protest.

"It keeps me awake nights," Miss Finch continued mournfully, "the way
things are in this house. It seems as if there might be an explosion
any minute. You're young and light-hearted, Agatha, and you can't
understand my feelings."

"Can't I, though," mused Agatha, as her old friend tottered toward the
house. "And what's more, I shouldn't wonder if the explosion came off
in just about twenty-four hours."



CHAPTER V

COMPANY MANNERS


Agatha took leave of Forbes about two hours before Warren's train
was due. She had worked valiantly most of the morning to render the
room he was to occupy approximately presentable. She had patched
the worst places in the carpet, provided two chairs with seats of
cretonne, and brought all the pictures from her own quarters to help
disguise the defaced condition of the guest-room walls. Her feeling of
dissatisfaction with the result, rather than her labors, had tired her,
and she had no heart for making the most of the dramatic possibilities
of the farewell. In her faded print dress, with a dusting cap drooping
limply over one ear, she presented herself on the porch, hastily
drawing on a kid glove, her sole make-up for her rôle.

"Well, good-by, Mr. Forbes. I'm going now."

Forbes took her gloved hand in both his. "I hope you'll have a
delightful week-end," he said cordially. "Nobody deserves it more."

"I'm not anxious to get my deserts," Agatha assured him with truth, and
then to head off inconvenient questionings, "Give my apologies to Mr.
Warren, and say that if it had been possible I would have been here to
receive him myself. But I am sure that Miss Finch and Hephzibah between
them will make you perfectly comfortable."

She released her hand and pulling off her glove as she went, betook
herself to the kitchen, where Phemie was still washing the dishes from
the mid-day meal. Left to herself, Phemie could be trusted to stretch
that uninspiring task over the better part of the afternoon. Thanks to
Agatha's presence, the splashing at once became animated.

Deprived of the stimulating companionship of his elderly hostess,
Forbes decided to accompany Howard to the station. From the kitchen
window Agatha watched the carryall pass and recalled the sensations
with which she had first seen Forbes approaching in the same shabby
vehicle. Perhaps her present apprehensions would prove as groundless
as those. Agatha whistled a martial tune, as she beat up her cake,
and sought diversion in addressing Phemie with that disregard of
grammatical precedent to be expected from a girl named Hephzibah Diggs.

       *       *       *       *       *

The usual number of loungers was in evidence at the Bridgewater
station, and the approach of Howard and his passenger was the signal
for animated comment. The rumors Agatha had been at such pains to
disseminate had taken on new and startling details as the village
gossips rolled them under their tongues. It was stated on indisputable
authority that Forbes had been the victim of sunstroke during his South
American sojourn, and that this had left him blind and with his mind
permanently affected. Another equally authoritative version pictured
him the slave of an appetite for liquor and accounted for his presence
at Oak Knoll by the fact that the village was "bone dry." All the
rumors agreed, however, in emphasizing Forbes' aversion to society,
and though Howard was surrounded and questioned as soon as he stepped
on the platform, it was not till the train was in sight that any one
ventured to approach the vehicle where Forbes sat alone.

Howard, absorbed in the responsibilities connected with the
recognition of Mr. Warren, failed to notice the intrusion on Forbes'
privacy, but a number of other people were more observant. For once the
arrival of the four o'clock express had a rival in the public interest.
The unconscious Forbes was the target for a dozen pair of curious eyes,
as Jim Doolittle slouched toward him.

Jim paused by the carryall and looked Forbes over with the agreeable
certainty that he could make his scrutiny as prolonged and insolent as
he pleased, without being called to account. Then as the noise of the
approaching train warned him to make the most of his conversational
opportunities, he ventured a remark: "How do you find yourself to-day?"

Forbes' face showed no change of expression. Though Jim's nasal tones
reached him distinctly, it did not occur to him that he was the object
of solicitude. Jim waited vainly for a reply, and then, spurred to
persistence by his grinning audience, he tried again, this time lifting
his voice to a bellow, as if Forbes were deaf as well as blind. "Air
they treatin' you right out to Kent's?"

Forbes turned with a start. "Beg pardon! I didn't know you were
speaking to me."

"You're stayin' out to Kent's ain't you, for the summer? Folks say you
came for your health."

"Yes." Forbes spoke stiffly, sharing the impression of most men who
have always been robust, that illness is a disgrace. "The doctors
advised a change of air."

"And does Aggie Kent take good care of you?"

The formality of Mr. Forbes' manner became more pronounced. "Miss
Kent," he replied, with marked emphasis on the prefix, "has made me
most comfortable."

"Glad to hear it, glad to hear it," Mr. Doolittle assured him affably.
"Seems as if takin' boarders was pretty risky for anybody of her age."

Forbes' irritation deepened. "Miss Kent is perfectly capable and
extremely vigorous. I believe she could tire me out."

"Yes, I shouldn't wonder," Jim agreed, rather to Forbes' annoyance.
"And I guess Zaida Finch steadies her down when there's a chance of her
doin' something flighty."

As this suggested to Forbes the weakening of his hostess' intellect
through age, necessitating the guardianship of Miss Finch, he contented
himself by a disdainful silence. The approach of Howard with a
stranger in tow checked further conversational angling on Jim's part
He tore himself away with a genial, "See you later," to which Forbes
responded by a non-committal grunt. But he forgot his annoyance as
Warren shouted his name, coupled with those abusive epithets with which
his sex are wont to disguise sentiment toward one another.

Mr. Ridgeley Warren took an unaffected pleasure in his own society,
which as a rule proved contagious. He was an inveterate talker, noisy,
slangy, in every way Forbes' antithesis. Warren admired Forbes'
dignity, and Forbes found diversion in Warren's flow of spirits. And
beneath this mutual admiration was one of those steadfast affections
which springing up between two men is more lasting, in nine cases out
of ten, than the love between men and women.

It was fortunate that the staid bays knew the way home, for though
Howard sat with the lines in his hands, he left to the horses all
responsibility for keeping to the road, and turning at the right
crossing. Warren told stories steadily all the way, and roared his
appreciation of each. Howard laughed too, and Forbes shared their
amusement, though less boisterously. Though the horses moved with
deliberation, the five-mile drive seemed short.

As they turned up the driveway at Oak Knoll, Forbes said with the pride
of a proprietor, "Fine old place, isn't it?"

"You bet," agreed Warren, his eyes upon one of the splendid oaks which
had given the place its name. Then beyond, he caught sight of the
house, and he leaned forward for a better look. "House been standing
for some time, from appearances."

"Built by Miss Kent's grandfather," Forbes replied boastfully, "and
she's well on to seventy. I imagine the house is a hundred years old."

Warren, staring at the sagging roof of the old building, looked as if
he could easily believe it, but unaware of his lack of enthusiasm,
Forbes continued: "I'm sorry you're not going to see Miss Kent, as
she's away for over Sunday. You'd fall in love with her on sight."

Warren shrugged his shoulders. "Seventeen is nearer my style than
seventy. Can't you trot out some pretty girls for me to fall in love
with?"

"I'm afraid Miss Finch is all we can offer you in the way of feminine
society, old man, and I've found her 'uncertain, coy and hard to
please.' But you always had a way with the ladies. You might do better."

The carriage stopped at the door. Howard alighted and possessed himself
of the visitor's suit-case. Miss Finch, who from the window of the
living-room had watched their leisurely progress along the driveway,
appeared on the porch, prepared to do her duty as hostess if it killed
her. Miss Finch's nose was red and her lips were blue. Despite the
warmth of the mild summer day, her teeth chattered.

Warren's hilarious air had disappeared with his first view of the
dilapidated country house where his friend was spending the summer.
His introduction to Miss Finch completed his undoing. He stared at
the tremulous little figure in silent stupefaction. What on earth
was Forbes doing in this tumbledown building with two old women for
company? And the extraordinary part was that Forbes seemed contented
with his quarters. Warren ascended the stairs to his room, trying to
make up his mind how to handle the situation. He had an uneasy feeling
that his friend was being imposed on.

The appearance of his quarters confirmed his worst apprehensions.
Warren looked around him, shook his head, and rejoined Forbes on the
porch, feeling the necessity of immediate action. But Forbes' air of
tranquillity made him hesitate. After all, if Forbes himself were
satisfied, that was the main thing.

He broached the topic cautiously. "I judge your friend, Miss Kent,
isn't what you'd call opulent."

"Hardly, or I shouldn't be here. She advertised for boarders. Some one
was reading me a few of the promising ads from the _Onlooker_, and I
recognized her name. You see I visited her once when I was a boy, and
I've always remembered the beauty of the place."

"Trees are fine," agreed Warren with reserve. "But the buildings all
seem rather seedy. Need paint badly."

"Do they?" Forbes spoke indifferently. "Paint is the least of my
troubles."

"I suppose so. But say, Forbes, are you sure it's a good thing for you
to be cooped up here all summer with two old hens?"

He had fancied he was being tactful, but to his surprise Forbes seemed
irritated.

"You haven't seen Miss Kent. If you had, you'd know that she's a
regular beef, iron and wine combination."

"If she's like Miss Finch," Warren was beginning, when Forbes
interrupted him with such spontaneous laughter that he dropped his
sentence unfinished.

"She's about as much like Miss Finch as a collie pup is like those
Teddy bears the kids lug around. She's an old lady in years, but
otherwise she's as young as you or I. She's so full of vitality that
you can't be near her ten minutes without feeling braced up. She's like
a mountain breeze."

"Pity a woman of that sort didn't marry," commented Warren dryly.

"That's what my old dad thought. Miss Kent was his first love, and he
stayed single on her account till he was well on to forty."

"Maybe that's why you're ace high with the old lady. She's trying to
make up to the son for turning down the father."

"Can't say, I'm sure. I imagine it's her disposition to be kind to the
crippled and disabled and generally good-for-nothing."

His tone was suddenly bitter, and Warren's look sharpened. "How's
Julia?" he asked with seeming irrelevance.

"Julia's well and enjoying herself." Forbes' manner seemed to defy his
friend to criticize, and Warren, who would have enjoyed nothing better
than expressing his opinion of Julia, changed the subject abruptly.
If Forbes liked this gone-to-seed place and the society of old women
it was no concern of his. Queer how differently men were affected
when their love-affairs went wrong. Some took to drink and some were
women-haters. With Forbes it had developed a craving for the atmosphere
of an Old Ladies' Home. Every man to his taste.

Supper partly dissipated Warren's concern. The dining-room was as rusty
as the rest of the house. Miss Finch at the head of the table looked
tinier and more frightened than ever. The girl who waited on the table
was, without exception, Warren decided, the most unattractive specimen
of youthful femininity he had ever come across. But the supper was
unique. As Warren ate, his high spirits returned. Old Forbes knew what
he was about, after all. A homely waitress need not trouble a blind
man. Warren was almost inclined to believe that he himself could put up
with the sight of Phemie's vacant face for the rest of his life, if he
could be sure of three such meals every day.

In the relief from his anxiety regarding Forbes, Warren turned his
attention to Miss Finch. She looked so helpless over all his jokes,
that he realized the necessity of strict literalness in dealing with
her. "I suppose you've known Miss Kent for a long time," he said by way
of beginning.

Miss Finch paled over the shock of being addressed, but answered with
unusual promptness, "Yes, ever since she was a teething baby."

In an instant she knew what she had done even before Forbes, turning a
perplexed face in her direction, asked, "But you're the younger of the
two, are you not?"

Miss Finch opened her mouth like a newly-landed fish, and closed it
again without speaking. The device Agatha had suggested and which
she had mentally dismissed as "acting a lie," thrust itself upon her
recollection, and she clutched it with the avidity of the desperate.
Putting her hand to her ear with the immemorial gesture of the deaf,
she quavered, "What did you say?"

"I asked if you weren't the younger of the two. Miss Kent said to me
the other day that she thought of you as a mere girl."

"I didn't quite catch what you said," faltered Miss Finch, but before
Forbes could again repeat his inquiry, Phemie created a diversion.
She had taken the water pitcher to refill it, and as she advanced
to the kitchen door, her tray extended before her, she looked back.
It was characteristic of Phemie to walk in one direction and look
in another. Agatha was beginning to congratulate herself on having
at last eradicated this tendency, but she had not reckoned on the
effect of a handsome and lively young man on Phemie's susceptible
temperament. As she turned for another look at Warren, Phemie's tray
came into collision with the door and the pitcher, overturning, broke
in fragments.

As was inevitable, every one turned to look. Warren, who was in range
of the door, saw it open, apparently of its own accord. A figure stood
in the passageway, fairly dazzling in its effect after the gray tints
of Miss Finch, the subdued tan and tow of Phemie. His eyes drank in the
colorful apparition for some ten seconds and then a rounded arm closed
the door. Phemie picked up the fragments of the broken pitcher, and
tearfully withdrew.

Miss Finch sat through the remainder of the meal without tasting a
morsel, waiting in an agony of apprehension for Forbes to ask her again
whether she was older or younger than Miss Kent. She might have spared
her anxiety, for Warren's flow of conversation gave no chance for
settling such minor perplexities. Warren was one of the men to whom the
propinquity of a pretty woman is as stimulating as champagne. He did
not think it probable that the apparition in the kitchen could hear his
witticisms, but he assumed that she must realize who was responsible
for the hilarity at the supper table. And even without this confidence,
he would probably have talked and jested in the same breezy fashion,
this form of responsiveness to beauty being instinctive with him rather
than deliberate.

The moment he was alone with Forbes, Warren broached the subject
engrossing his thoughts. "Burton, you have my sympathy. You don't know
what you're missing. Under this roof there's as pretty a bit of flesh
and blood as ever wore petticoats. Take it from me, she's a peach."

"Phemie?" exclaimed Forbes. "The waitress?"

Warren's derisive yell effectually settled Phemie's claims. "Gosh, no!
That girl would stop a clock. This one was out in the kitchen, but I
could see her peeking through after the smash-up."

"Oh, yes," exclaimed Forbes, recollecting. "I know. That's Hephzibah."

Warren positively staggered. "Lord, forbid," he ejaculated piously,
"she can't be."

"She is, though, Hephzibah Diggs."

Again Warren's stentorian tones shattered the peace of the night.
He used his first spare breath in announcing his intention to get a
nearer view and see if a girl named Hephzibah Diggs could possibly be
the beauty she had seemed. The announcement of this intention rendered
Forbes uneasy.

"You let Hephzibah alone," he warned his friend. "These self-respecting
country girls think themselves as good as anybody--they _are_ as good
as anybody. And I'm responsible to Miss Kent for your behavior."

"I don't want anything of the girl except to see her by daylight. She's
not too self-respecting for that, is she?" And then seeing that Forbes
was really annoyed, Warren dropped the subject of Hephzibah, though
without the least alteration in his intentions.

It did not prove so easy as he had anticipated to get a satisfactory
view of the girl whose face, glimpsed in the half-light of the
previous evening, had seemed so alluring. At breakfast time Phemie met
with no accident, and though Warren watched the swinging door that led
to the kitchen with the alertness of a cat at a rat hole, it swung open
and shut without revealing anything more seductive than a corner of the
kitchen table. The day was warm, but the outside kitchen door remained
obstinately closed, and on the rare occasions when it opened, it was
Phemie who emerged.

Warren was not a man who readily surrendered. Indeed, difficulties
were likely to stiffen a careless desire into adamantine resolution.
When his watch showed noon and Hephzibah Diggs continued invisible, he
decided it was time to take matters into his own hands. He rose from
his chair on the porch stretching his sinewy length lazily. "I believe
I'll walk about a bit," he said, "and work up an appetite for dinner.
With meals like these, a man wants to be able to do himself full
justice every time he sits down to the table."

"You ought to try Miss Kent's cooking," boasted Forbes. "She trained
this girl, and she does well, but she's not a patch on her teacher."

Warren's stroll took him no farther than the kitchen door. He ascended
the steps jauntily and knocked. After waiting vainly for an invitation
to enter, he decided to assume that it had been spoken, and pushing the
door ajar, he walked in.

Over in the corner Phemie was chopping something in a wooden bowl, but
in spite of the insistent tapping of the knife upon the wood, he was
hardly conscious of her existence. A girl stood at the table rolling
out biscuit, and her sleeve turned back almost to the shoulders,
revealed a faultless arm, white and rounded and tapering to the
finger-tips. She turned her head at his step and he thrilled with
amazed pleasure. His glimpse of the previous evening had not been
misleading. Indeed his impression had fallen short of the actuality. He
was looking at the handsomest young woman he had ever seen.

Mr. Ridgeley Warren did not lack self-confidence. His momentary silence
was due to wondering admiration, not to any doubt of his power to
please. With smiling self-possession he advanced into the room. In her
corner Phemie chopped on steadily, without removing her fascinated
eyes from his face. Hephzibah--it was preposterous that this radiant
creature should be encumbered with such a name--continued to roll
biscuit.

"You seem busy here," remarked Warren in his most ingratiating manner.
"Don't you want an assistant?"

He was sorry to discover that the voice of Hephzibah Diggs was not in
accord with her bodily perfection. She talked through her nose and that
fact impressed him so painfully he almost lost the force of her reply,
"Guess me and Phemie kin manage."

"I'm quite a little cook myself," continued Warren, saddened but not
discouraged. "In my last place they said my parboiled cauliflower beat
anything they had ever tasted. And my string-bean _parfait_ has become
popular in the best New York restaurants."

Phemie's delighted gasp was his sole applause. Hephzibah Diggs gave her
attention to her biscuits.

Warren seated himself on one corner of the immaculate table and began
to talk with his customary volubility. His remarks took the form
he imagined would please a country farmer's daughter, lacking the
rudiments of education. He soon realized, and with some irritation,
that he was making an impression on the wrong girl. Phemie chortled
joyfully over her chopping. Hephzibah Diggs listened as if it were
against her principles to smile.

She brought three eggs from the pantry presently and broke them in a
workmanlike manner, whites in one bowl, and yolks in another. "Got to
have three more," she said to Phemie in that unpleasant nasal voice
which helped to reconcile Warren to her continued silence.

A little flicker of triumph crossed Warren's face. Her sending Phemie
for eggs was obviously a ruse to be alone with him. When Phemie had
departed on her errand, with obvious reluctance, he leaned toward
Hephzibah, his smile so confident that it was almost a smirk. She
looked up with a directness rather disconcerting and he reflected that
her eyes even in a face like Phemie's, would have given her a certain
claim to beauty.

"I don't like men folks hangin' 'round when I'm busy." Her speech, it
appeared, was as direct as the gaze of those adorable, reddish brown
eyes.

"Then what do you say to a little walk when you've finished your work?"

"I ain't got the time."

"You mean you've got another fellow up your sleeve, don't you? Say,
let's give him the slip. You ought to be nice to me after I've come so
far to see you."

She turned her attention again to the cooking, drawing her arched brows
into a frown. He noticed with approval that her beauty lost nothing of
its distinction by her look of ill temper. But perhaps that was because
the ill temper was a make-believe.

He leaned toward her persuasively, losing his head a little in her
proximity. His pulses quickened. He thought he had never seen anything
prettier than the way her hair crinkled away from her creamy neck.
It occurred to him that he would like to kiss the cheek whose vivid
freshness seemed an invitation to such temerity. Country people were
primitive and direct. With a girl of the type of Hephzibah Diggs, a
kiss was simply a natural expression of admiration.

As his lips brushed that blooming cheek, she reached for the bowl
containing the egg yolks. She did not look in his direction as she
flung the contents in his face, but her aim was true. He sprang to his
feet with a gasp and a sputter. There was an incredible quantity of
that sticky yellow stuff, matting his hair, dripping from his eyebrows,
trickling in sickening streams down his neck.

"You little vixen. Does this stuff spot?"

Hephzibah ignored his inquiry. Warren backed away, laughing nervously,
his mood divided between anger with her and shame for himself. Then
panic seized him at the thought of encountering Phemie and he took a
hasty departure, mopping himself with his handkerchief as he ran.

Howard had driven Miss Finch to church and Forbes was alone on the
porch. "You didn't walk far," he said, recognizing his friend's step.

"No--o. Had an encounter with a wasp. I'll be down in a minute when I
repair damages."

He hoped Hephzibah would not tell Miss Kent of the episode, but he
decided to take the chance, and suggested to Forbes his coming up again
in two or three weeks. To his surprise Forbes was not enthusiastic.

"It was awfully good of Miss Kent to take me in," he explained,
apparently forgetful of the advertisement which was responsible for
his presence at Oak Knoll. "And I don't want to bother her with too
much company. I think she finds it upsetting to have strangers around,
and it's not singular when you come to think of it. For all she's so
wonderful, she's really getting to be an old lady."



CHAPTER VI

HEPHZIBAH COMES TO LIFE


Miss Kent's company at breakfast Monday morning was an agreeable
surprise to Forbes, his pleasure chastened only by his regret that
Warren had left on the late train the previous evening. "I particularly
wanted you to meet him," Forbes complained. "If I'd known you were to
be back so early I should have insisted on his staying over."

"It's only the young who can make a good impression at breakfast,"
Agatha responded. "Old people need twilight and candles." She raised
her eyebrows in the direction of Howard, who was indicating his
approval of her answer by a soundless show of spirited applause.

"I'd risk the impression you'd make any hour in the twenty-four,"
rejoined Forbes gallantly. "But it is too late now. Serves Warren right
for being in such a rush to get back to his confounded business. Tell
us all about your good time, Miss Kent."

"I didn't have one." Agatha felt the statement to be indiscreet, but
her imagination was not equal to lending any glamour to her nightmare
of a Sunday.

"You didn't enjoy yourself?" Forbes' voice indicated sympathetic
surprise. "Why, what was wrong?"

"I didn't say I was going away to enjoy myself. I didn't expect to. You
took that for granted."

"I see. One of those formal visits that are even more deadly than
formal calls, because they're longer."

"And it turned out worse than I expected." Agatha was finding a certain
melancholy pleasure in speaking her real sentiments. "Because I had
a disagreeable encounter with a perfectly obnoxious person. But it's
over, thank heaven, and I don't want to talk about it."

This topic being tabooed by mutual consent, it was natural that Forbes
should begin to talk about Julia, as a theme eminently calculated to
cheer the despondent, and lend interest to the most tedious hour.
Agatha, listening, realized that her week was to be a hard one. It was
time for Forbes to expect another letter from Julia, and of course
Julia would not write so promptly as he expected, and it would be
increasingly difficult to keep him in good spirits. Over her coffee
Agatha laid plans for distracting her boarder's thoughts from his
elusive correspondent.

Her apprehension proved correct. That afternoon Howard was sent to
the village to do one or two little errands for his employer, and
incidentally to get the mail. The next day the same program was
followed and the third brought no change. And meanwhile the arrival of
the Rural Free Delivery wagon was daily awaited with an anticipation
not justified by results.

Agatha starting down the long driveway one morning, as the fateful hour
approached, saw Forbes and Howard on ahead, evidently bound on the same
errand. Before she could turn back, Howard caught sight of her and
abandoning his charge, he came toward her on the run.

"You were starting for the mail, weren't you, Aggie? Would you mind
taking him along while I see if I've got a rat in my trap?" Then
dropping his voice to a scornful undertone, "He's got to go himself
because he's expecting a letter from his girl, and can't wait for it to
be brought up. See?"

Agatha accepted the commission without comment. She joined Forbes,
and taking his arm, guided him the length of the shaded drive. Neither
had much to say. Forbes was evidently bracing himself for possible
disappointment and Agatha was not in a talkative mood. They had hardly
reached the main road before Agatha's observant eyes detected in the
distance a significant cloud of dust. "He's coming," she said with
a reservation in her tone intended to warn her companion not to be
over-sanguine. "We won't have long to wait."

The wagon approached and halted. The driver produced a miscellaneous
assortment of letters and one good-sized package, the latter he
scrutinized as if reluctant to part with it. "Do you know anybody
around here," he brought out with irritating deliberation, "by the name
of Diggs--Hep--Hephzibah Diggs? Ain't that a name for your life?"

Agatha gazed at him wild-eyed, incapable for the moment of speech.

"It's addressed to Oak Knoll," the speaker continued. "But I thought
mebbe there was some mistake. I never knew any Diggses in these parts."

Agatha recovered herself and extended her hand. "Yes," she said
hurriedly. "It's all right. I'll take it."

The mail-carrier surrendered the collection. "You're getting to have
quite a raft of boarders," he commented affably. "Feller has to have
his wits about him to keep track of so many new names." He clucked to
his horses and the wagon rattled on.

Oblivious to her responsibilities as temporary post-mistress, Agatha
stood quaking. To her guilty conscience the significance of the
mail-carrier's inquiry was unmistakable. He had never heard of a
family in the vicinity named Diggs. He assumed that Hephzibah was
a summer boarder. Agatha did not doubt that Forbes was pondering
these extraordinary facts, and that his first words would demand
an explanation. With hanging head she waited for him to begin his
cross-examination, but his voice when he spoke was anxious rather than
peremptory. "Well?"

Agatha gasped. "I--why--you see--"

"You know her handwriting, don't you?" asked the lover. "I'm not sure
where this letter will be posted."

Agatha reflected that love is sometimes deaf as well as blind. So
engrossed was Forbes in his own anticipations that the compromising
conversation with the mail-carrier had made no impression on his
consciousness. After a hasty survey of the handful of letters, Agatha
announced in a stifled voice that there were two letters for Forbes,
but neither seemed to be from Julia. Her face betrayed an emotion due
not to the tragedy of Forbes' disappointment, but to the discovery that
there was a letter as well as a package, addressed to Hephzibah Diggs.
That young woman, the fantasy of a day, had taken on a terrifying
vitality. There was no way of estimating her possible activities.
Agatha's emotions were those of Frankenstein when he discovered that
his monster was alive.

They made their way back to the house, Forbes valiantly explaining why
it was foolish to have expected a letter before afternoon, and Agatha
making irrelevant replies. She turned her companion over to Howard
and escaped to her room with the mail addressed to Hephzibah Diggs.
An absurd scruple regarding the opening of other people's letters
temporarily paralyzed her efficient right arm, and she stood staring at
the address of the communication without coming any nearer a knowledge
of its contents. It was impossible to rid herself of the feeling that
she was on the point of attempting something dishonorable.

"What a fool I am," she groaned in exasperation. "Hephzibah Diggs
isn't anybody, but if she were anybody, she'd be me." She tore open
the letter without giving herself a chance to evade the inevitable
conclusion of this bit of logic.

It was from Warren, of course. She had been prepared for that,
even without the testimony of his bold signature. With a curiosity
that momentarily made her oblivious to the menacing aspects of the
situation, Agatha read the brief communication:

 "My Dear Miss Diggs:

 "I am writing you a line to apologize for my conduct Sunday. You were
 all right, and I was all wrong. At the same time, you'll have to take
 a little share of the blame for being so distractingly pretty that a
 man's likely to lose his head when he comes near you.

 "I am sending you by this mail a package which I hope you will accept
 as indicating my regret for having offended you, and my sincere wish
 to be

 "Your friend,

 "Ridgeley Warren."

Agatha turned her thoughtful attention to the package which bore
Hephzibah's name. She proceeded to strip off the wrapping paper with
a haste indicating that her scruples were finally set at rest. Then
as she took the cover from the five-pound box of chocolates, and gazed
enraptured at the triumph of the confectioner's art, she temporarily
laid aside the feeling of age due to the faithful impersonation of her
great-aunt, and became nineteen or a trifle less.

"Chocolates," murmured Agatha. "And millions of them. In the person of
Hephzibah Diggs I accept the apology."

When she reappeared upon the porch, her manner was cheerful, and a
number of yawning cavities marred the symmetrical arrangement of the
topmost layer of chocolates in the box up-stairs. Forbes greeted her
with more animation than she had looked for, considering his recent
crushing disappointment.

"That's you, isn't it, Miss Kent?"

"Yes."

"Here's a letter Howard has just read me. I want you to look it over
and tell me what you think of it."

"Very well." Agatha seated herself comfortably and took the letter from
his extended hand. But Forbes was evidently desirous of preparing her
for its contents.

"It will be a surprise to you, I imagine, Miss Kent. What is your
opinion of Hephzibah? Is she really such a stunning beauty?"

"I suppose she would be considered fairly good-looking if anyone
liked the type." Agatha flattered herself that she had spoken with a
creditable lack of prejudice.

"According to Warren she's considerably more than that. The fact is,
he--but you'd better read the letter. That makes it plain enough."

With a return of her previous misgivings, Agatha followed his
suggestion.

 "My Dear Forbes:

 "If you had shown a little more enthusiasm over my suggestion of
 dropping in on you again soon, I should have run down at the end of
 the week, and had a good talk with you. Owing to your inhospitable
 reluctance I'm obliged to trust to writing, which I sometimes think
 was invented, as somebody said about speech, for the purpose of
 concealing thought.

 "To come straight to the point, I must confess that I had a short and
 not wholly satisfactory interview with the fair Hephzibah on Sunday,
 in the course of which my earlier impression of her beauty was more
 than confirmed. By jove, Burton, she positively is a dream. And the
 idea that a creature of that sort should spend her days amid pots
 and kettles is obnoxious to any right-thinking man. We've got to do
 something about it, Forbes. What do you think of sending her to
 school somewhere, and having her educated? It would be virgin soil,
 I imagine, for the poor girl can't open her mouth without taking a
 bite out of the king's English, and her voice is like a guinea hen's.
 But that could be trained out of her. For all her ignorance, she's
 nobody's fool. You can see that by looking at her.

 "Now I'm putting the thing up to you because I suppose it would be
 better to have Miss Kent act for us in the matter. Judging from my
 brief experience Hephzibah--can't we find some euphonic substitute
 for that name?--is as self-respecting as the devil. Explain to Miss
 Kent that I'm a respectable man of philanthropic tendencies--hitherto
 unrecognized--and ask her what would be the best way to go about
 taking the girl in hand, and giving her an education, or enough of one
 so she can make a reasonably good appearance. And then we can decide
 on the next step. A few hundred a year will be enough to do the job
 properly, and if you feel like going into it with me, it might help to
 reassure Miss Kent as to the impeccability of my motives.

 "Lord! What a letter! I haven't written so much with my own fist since
 I was in college, and at the same time I feel as if fifteen minutes of
 chinning would have made the matter a heap clearer. If the girl should
 prove to have enough head for the legitimate stage she ought to make a
 hit as Katharine, in _Taming the Shrew_. She's exactly the type, red
 hair and all.

 "Regards to the voluble Miss Finch, to Howard, and of course to Miss
 Kent.

 Yours,

 "R.W."

Agatha was glad the letter was a long one, as this gave her time to
think. And yet the result of her thinking was but a confused jumble
of varying apprehensions. Her recollection of Warren's face as he
leaned toward her, was that of a man not easily turned aside from a
purpose. But somehow or other he must be forced to surrender his absurd
philanthropic intentions in behalf of Hephzibah Diggs.

Forbes was waiting for her verdict. "Well?" he said at last, when she
showed no inclination to speak. "What do you think of it?"

Agatha cleared her throat. "It's out of the question," she shot at him
so violently that he looked startled.

"I'm ready to vouch for Warren," he hastened to say. "I don't mean
that he would be as ready to help a plain girl as a pretty one, but I
assure you that your protégée would be perfectly safe as far as he's
concerned. And I suppose he's right in thinking that beauty is one of
the talents, and it's hardly fair to keep it wrapped in a napkin."

"But she doesn't want to be educated," Agatha protested. "She's
perfectly satisfied just as she is."

Again Forbes seemed to find her vehemence perplexing. "Perhaps her
ignorance explains her indifference," he suggested. "Do you think
she's capable of learning?"

"I suppose she's capable enough."

"If she's really a strikingly handsome young woman with a fair mind,
and Warren is sufficiently interested in her to give her an education,
doesn't it seem that she should be encouraged to accept his offer?
Surely if she is what he thinks, she is capable of something better
than the work she is doing at present. Unless you have some good reason
for feeling that it would not do--"

"But I have," flashed Agatha. "I have."

"Oh, indeed!" He seemed to be waiting for her to explain, and she
floundered on with a horrible sensation of being caught in a quicksand.

"She doesn't wish to be educated. She doesn't wish any notice taken of
her; she only asks to be let alone."

"To be let alone." He said the words over as if they had a hidden,
mysterious meaning. "Oh, I think I begin to see."

Agatha sighed her satisfaction. She had no idea what explanation had
presented itself to the perspicacious Mr. Forbes, but she perceived
that at length her protests had taken effect and he was prepared to
relinquish the argument. So great was her relief that the processes of
his mind failed to interest her.

Unluckily Forbes was one of the people who insist on certainty. "I
suppose," he said, a note of sympathy in his deep voice, "that the poor
girl has been unfortunate."

Agatha blanched. He waited for her avowal, then tried again: "You
mean, I suppose, there's some unhappy episode in her past life and she
doesn't want to attract attention for fear of its bobbing up again."

Agatha stared at him aghast. Her first impulse to defend the character
of Hephzibah Diggs at any cost yielded to a less worthy caution. If
she gave Hephzibah a clean bill of health, figuratively speaking,
what other reason could she invent for her invincible repugnance
to attracting attention? With fascinated horror she realized that
Forbes' conjecture exactly filled the requirements of the case. There
was no help for it. The fair name of the blameless Hephzibah must be
sacrificed to that most merciless of the divinities, the exigency of
the moment.

"You have expressed it," faltered Agatha with an unnerving sense of
rank injustice, "as well as I could have myself."

"Poor girl!" Forbes repeated, "and so young, too. At least I suppose
she's young, from Warren's idea of educating her."

Again he waited for an answer, and Agatha stammered, "Ni-nineteen."

"And all this happened some time ago, I suppose."

"Oh, a long time." Agatha was crimson to her ears.

"It seems a shame," mused Forbes aloud. "Her whole life to be
sacrificed for one step aside from the straight and narrow path. You
and I know the world, Miss Kent. And we know--"

"Oh, please," protested Agatha faintly, "I don't know anything about
it."

He leaned toward her quickly, touched by the appeal in her voice.

"Excuse me, Miss Kent. I know you belong to a generation whose women
were trained to shut their eyes to a great many things. I don't believe
in that theory of life, but I haven't any intention of violating your
prejudices. All I wanted to say was that you and I have lived long
enough to know that thousands of our respected citizens, prominent
socially and otherwise, are every bit as guilty as that poor girl. And
since this is the case, isn't it a pity that her morbid sensitiveness
should shut her out of making something of herself?"

It was unbelievable. Hephzibah's reputation had been blackened in
vain. Even now he was unwilling to leave her in the seclusion her
sensitiveness craved. He was determined to drag her into a garish
publicity. Iphigenia had been sacrificed and still the winds were
unfavorable.

"Oh, I wish you would not talk of this any more," cried Agatha, the
intensity of her feeling showing in her moved voice. "I understand
Hephzibah's case a great deal better than you do, better than you ever
can. And I know that the thing you're talking about is out of the
question."

His face reflected her agitation in the shape of profound sympathy.
"You're sure that if we talked it over, we wouldn't find a way out? Two
heads are better than one, you know?"

"I'm absolutely certain."

"Then I won't distress you any further. Of course Warren has barely
seen the girl, and it's evident that his head was a little turned
by her beauty. You know her, and I'm sure you appreciate the
responsibility of deciding a question that concerns her so closely,
without even consulting her."

"I can speak for her as I would for myself."

"Then I'm sorry if the suggestion has worried you. I'll see you're not
bothered again." He spoke confidently, and Agatha hoped he did not
overestimate his influence where Ridgeley Warren was concerned. When
she remembered the square chin of the last-named young man, she did not
feel sure.

In her heart she gave Forbes credit for having done his best. Later
in the day Howard showed her a letter he had written to Mr. Ridgeley
Warren at Forbes' dictation. Without explanation but in the most
emphatic manner possible, Warren was assured that his scheme was
impracticable. "I can not very well go into details," the letter ran,
"but Miss Kent, who knows the case thoroughly, has convinced me that
the kindest thing, as far as the girl is concerned, is to leave her
alone." And to this sentiment Agatha sighed a tremulous amen.



CHAPTER VII

DAY DREAMS


For the first time since she could remember, Miss Finch felt herself
living in an atmosphere of romance. If a young man's fancy turns to
thoughts of love only under the allurements of spring weather, Zaida
Finch surpassed the average youth by full three seasons. Love and
matrimony occupied her thoughts twelve months in the year, and to an
extent inconceivable in view of her general colorless and withered
aspect.

Though as far as possible removed from the designing spinster of
the comic stage, Miss Finch had not as yet surrendered the hope of
changing her name. From her point of view the unmarried woman was a
self-advertised failure. Husbands, as far as she had been able to
observe, were always disappointing, and not infrequently obnoxious,
yet to lack one somehow proved one's self less than a woman. In those
dreams which never passed the bounds of maidenly reserve, she sometimes
imagined herself addressed by the prefix which indicates the dignity of
wifehood--she would have died sooner than have coupled it with the name
of any man of her acquaintance--and then in the words of a simpler and
more direct age, she felt that her reproach among men had been taken
away. The secret weighing heaviest on her heart was the knowledge that
no man had ever indicated that he wanted her.

Needless to say, Miss Finch's present mood of sentiment was entirely
vicarious. Agatha's prospects absorbed her almost to the exclusion of
her own timid dreams. Miss Finch was constitutionally incapable of
realizing Agatha's vivid beauty, though she sometimes told herself that
if it were not for her red hair, which she innocently assumed to be a
misfortune, Agatha would be a really pretty girl. Forbes had no sooner
made his appearance than Miss Finch had inventoried his qualifications
for Agatha's future husband, and had not found him altogether wanting.
His blindness was a misfortune largely offset by his amiability,
and free use of money, and in her association with him, Agatha had
developed a sympathetic patience her old friend could not regard as
characteristic.

"And it looks to me as if he were taken with her," Miss Finch had
congratulated herself. "He chirks up as soon as she comes near him. If
he likes her so well when he thinks she's an old woman, he ought to
like her better when he finds she's a young one."

There was, to be sure, one serious difficulty to be met in the
readjustment of Forbes' ideas on the important subject of Agatha's
identity. At this point Miss Finch's dreams ended in chaotic confusion
and with her oft-repeated lament, "There's no good going to come from
cheating a blind man."

After Warren's visit, Miss Finch's match-making tendencies took
another direction. If Warren had failed to make an impression on the
unsusceptible Hephzibah, he had nothing to complain of as far as Phemie
and Miss Finch were concerned. In spite of the agitation induced by her
unwonted responsibilities on the occasion of Warren's visit, Miss Finch
had been keenly alive to the young man's cheerful good humor, and his
naive self-enjoyment had communicated itself to the one of his audience
who seemed least responsive. "Exactly the one for dear Agatha,"
declared Miss Finch.

With the discovery of the source of the box of chocolates, Miss
Finch's smoldering hopes leaped into flame. Caution had dictated
Agatha's concealment of Warren's tangible apology, but to a girl
of her temperament the solitary consumption of a five-pound box of
confectionery was a moral impossibility. Her innate generosity forced
her to share the sweets with Forbes and Miss Finch and Howard and
even with Phemie. Three of her beneficiaries accepted their shares
as unthinkingly as the lilies of the field, but Miss Finch showed a
troublesome tendency to ask questions.

"Agatha, you don't mean you've been wasting your money on candy? A box
of that size must have cost something awful."

"No, Fritz, I didn't buy it."

Experience had taught Miss Finch to be on her guard when Agatha
wore that look of wide-eyed innocence. She pondered the seemingly
straight-forward reply.

"Having things charged is the same as buying 'em, Agatha. You've got to
pay for 'em some time."

"But these were given me, Fritz dear. They were an apology."

"Mr. Forbes!" gasped Miss Finch, and at once the strains of the wedding
march rang in her ears.

"Mr. Forbes! The very idea! The only trouble with him is that he never
did anything in his life to apologize _for_. He's so perfect that
people mistake him for a worm and trample on him."

"I didn't mean to make you mad, Agatha," Miss Finch protested timidly,
shrinking from the flame in Agatha's eyes. The inexplicable girl stared
for a moment and then to Miss Finch's great relief, burst into a laugh.

"Fritz, you're funnier than a box of monkeys. If you must know, Mr.
Warren sent the chocolates."

"To you?" Miss Finch almost screamed it. And forthwith the summer
breeze brought to her nostrils the odor of orange blossoms.

"That's the question that's troubling me, Fritz. The box was addressed
to Hephzibah. But as I am her nearest living relative--you might almost
say her mother--"

Miss Finch swept these fine points aside. "I didn't know he'd ever seen
you."

"He walked into the kitchen while you were at church. That's exactly
his style, I imagine. And when he saw me there rolling biscuits, he
talked a lot of nonsense and ended by kissing me."

"Agatha!" gasped Miss Finch. Her emotions were confused. She was under
the impression that this recital confirmed her wildest hopes and at the
same time outraged her finer sensibilities. Possibly her reprehensibly
exultant feeling was due to an overwhelming certainty that this at
least was life.

Her face aflame as if she and not Agatha had been the recipient of that
kiss, Miss Finch attempted to discharge her responsibilities as mentor
of youth. "Agatha, I can't understand it. I'm afraid you must have
acted bold. I never heard of a gentleman's walking into a kitchen, and
kissing a young lady he'd never seen before."

"Nor I, Fritz. And that leads me to the conclusion that Mr. Warren
isn't exactly a gentleman. At the same time," Agatha added, helping
herself to another chocolate, "he apologized very sweetly."

"Is he coming to see you?" demanded Miss Finch, who in her ignorance of
the ways of the great world assumed that so spontaneous a tribute must
be merely preliminary to an ardent courtship.

"He had an idea of taking my education in hand." Agatha briefly
outlined Warren's philanthropic scheme in behalf of Hephzibah Diggs,
and Miss Finch turned all colors as she listened. Now at last she knew
that the romantic novels with which she solaced her leisure hours had
not misled her. There really _was_ such a thing as love at first sight.

"Agatha!" she ventured tremulously, "you could marry that man to-morrow
if you liked. It's as plain as the nose on your face that he's dead in
love with you."

"If it were as plain as the nose on _his_ face, that would settle it.
But as nothing would induce me to marry him to-morrow or any other day,
the state of his feelings doesn't matter."

"But I'm sure, Agatha," remonstrated Miss Finch, "that you wouldn't
want to break his heart."

Agatha's reply was a paroxysm of laughter that left her gasping and
tearful. "Oh, Fritz," she half sobbed, as she wiped her eyes, "I'm so
glad you didn't die when you were little."

Miss Finch was on her dignity. "I know you're making fun of me, Agatha.
But it's no laughing matter to wreck a man's life."

Again Agatha yielded to mirth. "You've seen Mr. Warren and yet you say
that."

"I can't see why you take that tone, Agatha. I'm sure he's a nice young
man and so lively."

"I'll admit the liveliness but not the heart, at least not the broken
heart. That young man owns a good, tough, thoroughly seasoned organ,
take it from me."

Miss Finch sighed but with less dejection than her manner indicated.
Little as she had learned of the ways of men and women in her guileless
spinsterhood, she had somehow gathered the impression that girls
occasionally abused the admirers who stood highest in their maidenly
affections, for the pleasure of hearing them defended. And though she
could not be sure that this explained Agatha's slighting references
to a most agreeable young man, Miss Finch resolved to lose no
opportunity of sounding Warren's praises. In his case, too, there was
an unfortunate confusion of identity to be cleared up, but from Miss
Finch's point of view, a young man who could give a kiss and a mammoth
box of chocolates to a pretty girl, under the impression that she was
a servant, would not hesitate to lay his heart at her feet when he
discovered that her blood was as good as his own.

Developments convinced Miss Finch of the wisdom of her chosen tactics.
She overlooked no opportunity to speak a good word for the absent
Warren, acquiring a certain irrelevant eloquence on the theme. And
though Agatha gave no indication of agreeing with her, it was evident
that she enjoyed her earnestness and was more inclined to lead her on
than to check her fluency.

Whether because of Miss Finch's judicious opposition or some less
obvious reason, Agatha was in noticeably high spirits. She entered into
playing her rôle with a whimsical abandon that at times moved even Miss
Finch to laughter, in spite of her conscientious misgivings. Indeed the
spirit of cheerful animation pervaded the entire household. Whether
because Forbes had at length resigned himself to hearing from Julia
only once in two or three weeks, or whether the improvement in his
health furnished the necessary elasticity for resisting disappointment,
his moods of depression were becoming very infrequent. He spent less
time on the porch and more on long jaunts with Howard. The two went
fishing frequently and sometimes Agatha made a third, in which case
the pace was regulated strictly according to Forbes' view of what was
due her advanced years. Agatha was sure she would find more enjoyment
on the occasions when the two males went as fast and as far as they
pleased, undeterred by consideration for the aged.

One exhilarating morning Forbes and Howard left soon after breakfast,
taking their luncheon with them, and advising Agatha to expect them
only when she saw them. With her customary knack for utilizing the
moments, Agatha improved their absence to despatch a number of tasks
awaiting her attention, and wound up by washing her hair. She made
her appearance on the lawn in the early afternoon, her splendid mane
falling almost to her waist and reflecting the sunshine like burnished
copper. Already the little tendrils were beginning to curl about her
face while the water dropped from the long ends.

Agatha seated herself in the sun, lifting the coppery mass strand by
strand, that it might dry more quickly. Had Miss Finch been versed in
classical lore, she might have been reminded of the golden fleece for
which men risked so much. As it was she said chidingly, "Agatha, you
will freckle terribly if you're not careful."

"This sun is worth a peppering of freckles," Agatha answered
recklessly, but she pulled her hair over her face and then she
resembled Danäe veiled by a shower of gold. It was several minutes
before she made a peek-hole in the screen, and looked at Miss Finch
apprehensively.

"Fritz, I hear wheels. Don't tell me that in spite of my repeated
warnings, we're going to have callers."

Miss Finch stood up. The very slight advantage due to an upright
position was sufficient to enable her to recognize the occupant of the
approaching vehicle. "It looks to me like Jim Doolittle."

"Jim Doolittle!" exclaimed Agatha, amazed. "Why, what can he want? He
must be coming to see you, Fritz."

"Agatha!" quavered Miss Finch, and flushed a painful purple.

"Well, he certainly isn't coming to see me, and I find it hard to
believe that Phemie is the magnet. He doesn't know Mr. Forbes and
Howard is a trifle young to attract him. Please see what he wants,
Fritz."

"I--I'd rather not, Agatha."

"Why, Fritz, what ails you? You can see for yourself that I'm in no
condition to interview Mr. Doolittle. His modesty would never survive
the shock. Send him away as soon as you can. It won't do to have all
the busybodies of the neighborhood dropping in whenever they feel like
it."

Reluctantly Miss Finch departed on her inhospitable mission. But it
seemed that Agatha had done Mr. Doolittle an injustice. He had come on
an entirely altruistic errand.

"There was a telegram at the office for Aggie's boarder, and I offered
to bring it out, being as I was driving by."

"A telegram for Mr. Forbes!" fluttered Miss Finch, forgetting her
shyness in sympathetic concern. "I hope there's no more trouble in
store for that poor young man."

"Wal, the Bible says to him that hath shall be given, and I've noticed
that's likely to come true, as far as trouble's concerned. How's the
poor feller getting on? I had a little talk with him one day, and I
made up my mind he warn't the June-bug sort of crazy, just the glum,
hold-your-tongue kind."

"I guess Mr. Forbes' brains would hold their own alongside yours or
mine!" Miss Finch spoke with some heat and realized her mistake in time
to add, "Though of course he thinks a lot of things that aren't so."
It soothed her conscience to realize the absolute truth of her closing
statement.

"I know, hallucinations they call 'em," said Mr. Doolittle, proud of
his mastery of the polysyllable.

Miss Finch was not sure whether Agatha could be reckoned a
hallucination or not and she evaded the issue by adding pointedly,
"He's got quite an aversion to company."

"I could see that. You'd have thought it would be a real relief to
him to talk with me, man to man, after being shut up with a passel of
women-folks, but no! I couldn't scarcely get a word out of him." Mr.
Doolittle shook his head in sad wonder over the vagaries of a mind
distraught, and then his attention wandered to a patch of color on the
lawn. "Is that Aggie Kent in the brown dress with her hair hanging?"

"Yes."

"Looks like a haycock struck by lightning." Again Mr. Doolittle shook
his head. "Aggie's a lucky girl to have you on hand to steady her and
keep her acting sensible. I guess everybody 'round here knows who's the
backbone in this house."

"Agatha's an awful capable girl," said Miss Finch. She was aware that
she did not deserve the compliment, yet because of that contrary twist
in human nature from which the most exemplary are not altogether free,
it gave her pleasure. "Agatha don't need any backbone but her own," she
insisted.

Mr. Doolittle straightened his sagging figure and tightened his lines.
"Wal, if the young man should get vi'lent any time just call on me." He
clucked to his horse and the ramshackle buggy creaked away.

The great moments of life come and go while we remain oblivious. As Mr.
Doolittle jogged down the shaded drive, he said to himself that Zaida
Finch would make some man a good wife. He even turned his head to look
back, and the prim little figure hurrying across the grass seemed to
his elderly eyes to radiate a certain maidenly charm.

All unconscious of this momentous occurrence, Miss Finch carried the
telegram to Agatha, and that young woman shared her apprehension,
though for a somewhat different reason.

"It's not so likely to mean trouble for him as for me. Perhaps some
more of his city friends are coming to visit him. If they do, I think
I'll have an attack of smallpox and quarantine the place." She stood up
extending her hand for the message. "I must hunt him up right away and
find out."

"You're not going that way, are you, Agatha, with your hair all down?
You look like a crazy girl."

"What's the difference? Mr. Forbes won't be scandalized, because he
can't see me. And the birds and the squirrels won't mind. It's not dry
enough to put up yet."

Telegram in hand, she started up the slope behind the house. Miss
Finch's faded, troubled eyes saw her silhouetted in glowing relief
against the intense blue of the summer sky, and then lost her as she
passed out of sight over the brow of the hill.



CHAPTER VIII

THE RESCUE


Forbes and Howard had spent the morning in the open. They had tramped
miles under the genial sun, had eaten a luncheon which disproved the
accepted theory as to the capacity of the human stomach, and at the
conclusion of the meal had rested in the shade, Forbes smoking, and
Howard sprawled upon the turf, idly watching the woolly clouds that
like a flock of sheep grazed across a pasture of luminous blue.

Suddenly Howard leaped to his feet, and the next moment the report
of his shotgun shattered the lazy hush of the summer day. To Forbes'
secret annoyance, his nerves betrayed him into a violent start. He had
not been aware that firearms were included among his young companion's
impedimenta. "Hello!" he exclaimed disapprovingly. "What are you
shooting at this time of year, boy? You'll get yourself into trouble if
you're not careful."

"It's a chicken hawk. They're awful thick around here. Much as ever
Ag--Miss Kent raised any chickens this spring."

"Oh!" Forbes subsided, with a smile. "Every season's open for chicken
hawks, I suppose."

"Well, there's one robber out of the way," Howard boasted. "He went
down like a stone. Say, Mr. Forbes, would you mind staying alone a few
minutes while I run down the hill and see if I can find him?"

"Go ahead, my boy." Forbes smiled again, as Howard's headlong rush told
how promptly he had acted on the permission. Forbes' mood was hopeful,
and therefore indulgent. There was something tranquillizing in the
atmosphere of the summer day. It was easy to believe in his ultimate
and complete recovery, and even that Julia would wait for him instead
of engaging herself to one of the men who were helping to make her
summer enjoyable. Young Prendergast was the rival he had most reason to
fear, and that was a sore spot with him, for Murray Prendergast had his
father's money to recommend him, and little besides. Forbes was ready
to defend Julia for breaking their engagement, but though tortures
could not have elicited the avowal, in his heart he was humiliated by
the possibility that Julia might turn from him, to throw herself into
Murray Prendergast's arms. Eyes or no eyes, Forbes knew himself the
better man.

Yet to-day in the sunny peace of this Arcadia, the thought of
Prendergast had lost its power to sting him. He could reflect on
Julia's love of admiration with a tolerant smile. Flirtation was
the feminine equivalent of masculine wild oats, and he would be a
fool to put an exaggerated importance on a beautiful girl's innocent
coquetries. Miss Kent was hard on Julia. That was the way with the best
of women. They did not know how to be fair to one another.

"Bless her dear heart!" Forbes was not thinking of Julia now. His smile
had become tender. "What a champion she is! She never can see but one
side, and that's yours--if you happen to be the fellow she likes."

His fancies, tenuous as the smoke of his cigar, wove themselves into
pictures as he sat dreaming. He saw himself restored to health, and in
a home of his own. He saw Julia beautiful as ever, but with matronly
dignity replacing her girlish charm. And there were little shapes
whisking in and out of that dreamland, creatures half sprite, half
human, and his cigar went out as he watched their capers. An observer
would have noted a hint of pathos in his smile as well as a whimsical
humor.

He roused himself from his long reverie to wonder what had become of
Howard. Making all due allowance for the ardor of the chase, Howard's
absence had been protracted beyond all reason. Forbes whistled long and
shrilly, shouted Howard's name, and waited with growing uneasiness. He
could only make a rough estimate of the time that had elapsed since the
boy's departure, but he knew it must be nearer an hour than the few
minutes Howard had asked for. And it was not like Howard to forget him.

He had no way of measuring the time as it dragged on, but he ceased at
length to assure himself that he was becoming a fidgety old woman, and
frankly admitted he had reason for alarm. It was impossible to explain
Howard's continued absence on the ground of boyish thoughtlessness.
There was another and possibly a sinister explanation. His heart
sickened as he realized that Howard might be seriously injured and with
no aid near. As the thought suggested itself, he sprang to his feet in
furious rebellion against his helplessness.

"I've got to get to the road somehow. Then I can hail the first wagon
that passes, and send some one over here to look for that boy." He
realized that the thing was simpler in the statement than in the doing.
The last road they had crossed was at least half a mile from where he
stood, and to grope his way unguided over half a mile of open country
was a desperate undertaking. He was not even sure of the points of the
compass.

Forbes was angry to find himself trembling. He took a stronger grip
upon his self-control, and racked his brain for any information that
would be of service. Howard had spoken of a south wind that morning and
Forbes was under the impression that when they returned home from their
jaunts up into the hills, they walked toward the setting sun. He wet
his finger and held it up to test the direction of the breeze. He was
likely to go wrong, he knew, but anything was better than inactivity.

Stumblingly and with his hands outstretched, he started on his way.
His progress was slow. At first he was continually halted by imaginary
obstacles from which he shrank till his groping hands convinced him
that the way was clear. Resolving on bolder tactics, he marched along
at a swinging pace till a collision with a stalwart pine sent him
reeling back, gasping and half stunned. Again he tried caution and
after an interminable half-hour abandoned it, as intolerably slow. He
picked up a rotting branch over which he had stumbled, and waving this
before him to make sure that no tree barred his way, he found himself
making very creditable speed for a blind man without a guide.

After a little, again he halted, thinking he heard a faint, wailing
cry. He strained his ears, his heart thumping. "Howard!" he shouted.
"Howard!" He wondered if his nerves were playing him a trick, or
whether he really did hear a second time, that faint sound of distress.
He started on at a reckless pace, brandishing his stick before him, and
occasionally shouting Howard's name.

So utterly had the thought of his own safety passed from his mind that
a second collision was only to be expected. But this time it was not
a tree, whose impact sent him staggering backward, but a human form.
Involuntarily he dropped his stick, catching at the nearest object to
save himself, and was aware that two hands had seized him in a clutch
as desperate as his own. For a moment they clung together in an embrace
like the locked clasp of two drowning swimmers. Then a voice deep down
in Forbes' consciousness said, "Good God, it's a woman."

As his head steadied he knew he was not mistaken. There was a
smothering quantity of hair for one thing and it seemed to be
everywhere at once. When he moved just a little to get away from it, he
put his cheek against another cheek of exquisite smoothness. Surprise
rendered him incapable of moving, and standing like a statue, he made
other interesting discoveries. The woman in his arms was breathing in
long-drawn gasps like sobs. He could feel the convulsive straining of
her chest against his, as her breath came and went. Under his hand her
heart plunged like some frantic creature in a trap. Then he realized
that she was trying to speak.

"You fool," she could only whisper it, with that strange sobbing
breath. "You fool! Oh, you fool!"

"My dear girl!" Forbes remonstrated. He could not have told why he was
so sure of the fitness of this form of address, except that the curves
of the pliant body, that lay limp against his heart, were somehow
eloquent of youth. "I don't understand you."

His protest had an immediate and in some respects an unwelcome effect.
At once her relaxed form stiffened and withdrew from his arms. A strand
of hair rasped across his cheek producing a curious tingling like a
mild electric shock. But she had not gone far, for he could distinctly
hear her difficult breathing.

"You were walking to your death. In another minute you would have been
over the cliff."

"Is it possible!" No normal man can escape death by a hair's breadth
and remain unmoved. Forbes' face paled. For a moment he was intensely
conscious of the myriad fragrances steeped in the sunny air, of the
myriad sounds, significant of teeming life. But he had no time to waste
on himself.

"I knew I ran a risk but it was necessary. As you see I am blind, and
my attendant, a young fellow named Sheldon, left me for a few minutes
while he hunted for a hawk he had shot. That must have been two hours
ago. I'm afraid the boy is hurt."

She murmured something he failed to understand and he did not ask her
to repeat it. "As soon as you are able to walk, please go somewhere and
get help. He may be seriously injured."

"I said he was coming--I see--him coming." She still whispered but her
breathing was obviously less painful.

"Howard coming? Do you mean Howard?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure you know him?"

"Yes."

"Does he seem to be hurt?"

"Not that I can see--he's running."

"Thank God!" Forbes exclaimed. He had time now to think of himself and
his deliverer. He took a step nearer her, and it seemed to him, though
he could not be sure, that she drew back a little.

"As I understand it, you saw me from a distance, and realized I was in
danger. And you ran to help me."

"Yes." The monosyllable was hardly more than a breath.

"I thought I heard a cry once. Did you call?"

"I tried--to. Running up hill--I didn't--have breath."

There was a hysterical catch in her voice. Forbes seized her by the
arm. "Oh, you're crying. Please don't."

"I'm not." She sobbed aloud as she denied the charge and continued
to sob to his immense distress. He found her hand and patted it
soothingly as if she had been a child.

"Poor girl! I can see how unnerving all this has been. But won't it
help a little if you remember that you've saved my life?"

"Oh, don't! Don't!"

"I'm afraid you'll have to let me say it, but I'll wait till another
time if you'd rather. Please tell me your name."

"It d--doesn't matter."

"It matters a great deal to me. It isn't every day, you know, that a
man has his life saved by a beautiful girl." He felt singularly secure
regarding his adjective. "And of course I want to know who you are."

She trenched her hand away with disconcerting energy. "It--doesn't
matter about me," she said as well as she could for weeping. "But don't
take such risks again. Good-by."

"Now this is positively absurd," exclaimed Forbes in real annoyance.
"You've done me a tremendous service, the biggest one human being
can do another, and I'm not the sort of man to remain ignorant of my
benefactress. I want a chance to show that I'm not unappreciative."

Silence!

"Are you there?" Forbes demanded sharply. So vivid and illuminating
were his recollections of the woman his arms had enfolded that it
seemed preposterous he should never know how to address her.

Continued silence.

Forbes bit his lip and waited. And behind his back, a singular
pantomime was being enacted. A young woman whose heavy red hair
fell about her like a cloak, ran into the arms of a breathless boy
approaching from the opposite direction. She put her lips to his ear
and whispered, "Don't tell him who I am."

"All right, but what's the matter, Aggie? What are you crying for?"

"Never mind. Nothing. Don't tell him my name."

"But what if he asks me?"

"Don't tell him, that's all." She drew herself away from him and
started by a circuitous route for home. Howard approached his waiting
employer with a new perplexity superimposed on his former perturbation.

"Mr. Forbes, I don't know what you'll think of me--but down there I ran
into the game warden."

"Oh, did you!" Forbes' attitude was a trifle absent-minded. "Then you
weren't hurt."

"No, sir, I'm all right. But he'd got hold of a partridge some one had
shot and he was bound I'd done it. And he made me go along with him and
I thought I would never get away."

Howard's voice showed strain. Forbes' groping hand found his shoulder
and patted it.

"All right, old man. No harm's done. I own I was anxious when you
didn't show up, but no harm's done."

"Are you ready to go home now, Mr. Forbes? It's nearly four o'clock."

"Yes, we'd better go." Forbes took the boy's arm. "By the way, Howard,
did you see a girl talking with me a few minutes ago?"

"Ye--es, I saw her." Howard's manner betrayed reluctance.

"What is her name?"

An incomprehensible silence followed. Forbes repeated the question with
more than his customary peremptoriness.

"I--I don't think I can tell you, Mr. Forbes."

"Do you mean you don't know?"

Howard was a truthful boy. "Yes, I know it," he replied hesitatingly.
"But she"--a sudden inspiration came to his aid--"Miss Kent don't want
me to talk about her."

"I shall ask Miss Kent myself," Forbes rejoined coldly.

"Yes, sir," said Howard, brightening. "That would be better." He felt
that it really was up to Aggie to get out of the difficulty as best she
could. It was all very well to say to a fellow that he was not to tell
a certain thing, but she didn't take into account that he would feel
like a fool when he was asked a plain question.

As it proved, however, Forbes did not appeal to Miss Kent for
enlightenment. As they neared the house Howard proved the youthful
resilience of his spirits by making a little joke. "It's a good thing
you're not married, Mr. Forbes."

Forbes did not agree with him, but he forced himself to smile amiably,
and ask the reason for the conjecture.

"Because there's a long red hair on your coat collar."

Forbes saw the point and much besides. Understanding came in a flood.
The girl was Hephzibah, of course, poor unfortunate Hephzibah, ashamed
even to give her name and yet more sinned against than sinning, he was
strangely sure. Without seeing it, he had felt the spell of her beauty,
that beauty that had enthralled Warren. As he thought of his friend,
Forbes was instantly convinced that he had too readily yielded to Miss
Kent's insistence, regarding Warren's offer. He even felt a certain
tempered irritation with his old friend for having taken on herself the
responsibility of deciding for another so vital a matter. Now that the
girl had saved his life it was unthinkable that he should leave her
to her fate just because of an old-fashioned theory that there was no
future for a woman who had once gone wrong.

He felt so strongly on the subject that he might have spoken his mind
to Miss Kent on reaching home had he been given the opportunity. But
Zaida Finch met him with the information that Miss Kent had gone to bed
with a severe headache, and that a telegram had come for him about the
middle of the afternoon. She hoped it was not bad news.

The telegram proved to be from Forbes' physician, who was going away
for his vacation, and wished to look his patient over before leaving.
It gave him his choice of coming to the city on Wednesday or Thursday,
and Forbes chose Wednesday. He had decided to waste no time before
having a talk with Warren.



CHAPTER IX

AN EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES


No human being expects to die and all expect to marry. Observation
continually proves the groundlessness of one or both of these
anticipations, without altering the attitude of the survivors. In the
background of the consciousness of the most confirmed bachelor or
spinster, stands the shadowy form of the possible wife or the possible
husband.

Mr. James Doolittle, at fifty-five, had no idea of escaping the
matrimonial yoke. He thought of himself always as an eligible young
fellow, waiting for the right girl to come along. On two or three
occasions earlier in life he had temporarily congratulated himself on
finding the right girl, but as the ladies in question had disagreed
with him, there had been no escape from the conclusion that he was
mistaken. These disappointments he had accepted with an edifying
equanimity, reminding himself that there were still as good fish in
the sea as had ever graced a frying pan.

Just why, on a certain summer afternoon, Jim's vague and groping
expectations should suddenly have focused upon Zaida Finch, and why her
familiar, faded features and diminutive, gnome-like body should have
taken on the quality of allurement, is one of the mysteries which will
remain a mystery when the riddle of perpetual motion has been solved.
As the memory of Miss Finch hurrying across the grass continually
recurred to him, Jim said to himself that though a trifle more flesh
would not hurt her, she was a cute little thing. And forthwith he
was conscious of a feeling of youthful irresponsibility, flatly
contradicting the testimony of the family Bible.

Yet it was with no very definite purpose in his mind that on the
Wednesday following his brief call at Oak Knoll, Mr. Doolittle resolved
on a second visit. Even incipient love is fertile in excuses. He argued
that the most elementary sense of courtesy demanded his ascertaining
the nature of the telegram of which he had been the bearer, and
extending his sympathy in case it had brought bad news. With the lack
of candor with himself, frequently manifested by wiser men in his
condition, Mr. Doolittle failed to explain the fact that he assumed
for the call the necktie which for thirty years he had worn on dress
occasions, hand-painted daisies on a pink background. The silk was
faded now and the daisies had lost much of their original perky luster,
but with the hand-painted necktie tied under his chin, Mr. Doolittle
felt himself a figure to appeal to the exacting feminine taste.

His state of mind pleasantly indeterminate, Mr. Doolittle jogged
through the dust in the direction of Oak Knoll. As yet his ardor had
not reached the point where the leisurely pace of the gray nag got on
his nerves. The droning peace of the mid-summer world was reflected in
the serenity of his spirit. But as he neared Oak Knoll, the sound of
wheels halted him at the foot of the long driveway, and waiting there,
some intuition ruffled the placidity of his mood, and left him alert
and uneasy.

Jim knew his suspicion justified when suddenly upon his startled and
hostile vision emerged another buggy, smarter than his own, and newly
washed. The driver, Deacon Wiggins, looked up from the contemplation of
his sorrel mare to bark a gruff greeting, "Afternoon, Jim."

Deacon Wiggins was eminently a marrying man. He had married early,
and as often as a complacent Providence, assisted by pneumonia, heart
disease and typhoid, had permitted. A rather rusty band of crêpe around
his hat, preserved with commendable thrift from one bereavement to
another, bore witness to his latest loss some three months earlier. And
with a lover's quick suspicion, Mr. Doolittle leaped to the conclusion
that the deacon's errand to Oak Knoll was the same as his own, that
in his eyes, too, Zaida Finch had found favor. His voice rasping as
he realized the insatiable greed of some of his sex, Jim Doolittle
returned the deacon's greeting with a sneering, "Wasn't looking to see
you here."

Deacon Wiggins at once drew rein. His errand had not been a sentimental
one. He had called to collect from Miss Finch the amount of her very
modest subscription to the cause of foreign missions, and had been met
by Phemie with the news that the blind boarder and Howard had gone to
the city on the early train, and that the ladies of the family were
celebrating by spending the day with friends. Whereupon the deacon had
replied that he would call again, and had gone his way unruffled, till
halted by Doolittle's challenge. Though Deacon Wiggins was well past
fifty and had been thrice married, he had not outgrown that instinct
which impels two young cockerels to assault each other with murderous
intent.

"You wasn't looking to see me, eh?" repeated Deacon Wiggins,
ponderously sarcastic. "Well, I don't know as that matters, Jim, as
long as I didn't come for the sake of seeing you."

Doolittle reddened violently. "No, it's plain enough what you've come
for."

The note of unreasonable jealousy was unmistakable. And while the
deacon was quite in the dark as to the other's meaning, all his
masculine dignity was in arms over the realization that another man
was attempting interference with his doing as he pleased. "Whether I
came for one thing or another," he retorted, "I don't have to ask your
leave."

"Must make Zaida Finch feel terrible proud to know you are thinking of
her for Number Four."

The introduction of Miss Finch's name into the conversation took the
deacon by surprise, but he made no attempt to allay the groundless
suspicion. Instead he replied, "A good many women would rather be
Number Four with some men than Number One with others I could mention."
The magnanimity which kept him from giving names was clearly a
pretense, for his significant smile pointed his meaning unmistakably.

"There's no accounting for tastes," acknowledged Mr. Doolittle,
transformed by his fury to an unbecoming turkey red. "But sometimes
folks have better taste than we give 'em credit for."

The deacon's smile was as belligerent as a blow.

"You're right there, Jim. You're right. I've always said that the sort
of men who die old bachelors show the women ain't such fools as some
folks take 'em to be."

He clucked to his horse and drove on. Doolittle, breathing hard and
unable to think of a sufficiently crushing rejoinder to this final
insult, waited till the deacon was out of sight before turning up
the drive. To him Phemie repeated her story of the blind boarder's
departure for the city, escorted by Howard, and the consequent gadding
of the ladies of the family.

Mr. Doolittle drew a long breath as he realized that the fell designs
of Deacon Wiggins had been temporarily foiled. He was not the man,
however, to underestimate the gravity of the situation. His rival was
notable for prompt action, as his previous marriages had abundantly
proved. Left to himself, Doolittle might have meandered through several
years of more or less ardent courtship, before reaching the point
of asking Miss Finch to change her name, if indeed, he ever reached
it. But the certainty that Deacon Wiggins would waste no time in
such preliminaries forced him to realize that he, too, must act with
promptness, or resign himself to loss. Jim's vague intention became
definite in view of the purposes with which he credited the deacon.
With mingled sorrow and indignation he wondered at the man's grasping
nature.

Meanwhile Deacon Wiggins, jogging homeward, was undergoing a very
similar psychological experience. The most pronounced trait in the
deacon's character was his obstinacy. He was an ardent Democrat, for
the reason, it was generally believed, that he lived in a community
of devout Republicans. He had been drawn irresistibly to the
Congregationalist body because, as his acquaintances were certain,
he sprang from Methodist stock. In all his dealings Deacon Wiggins
could be safely counted on to take the off-side. But it had been long,
indeed, since anything had so whetted his native stubbornness as his
brief interview with James Doolittle.

In a general sense it might be said that Deacon Wiggins was looking for
a wife. He was always looking for a wife in those interruptions to his
marital bliss, whose brevity shocked the finer sensibilities of Mr.
Doolittle. But at present his attitude was one of critical observance
rather than active search. Mentally he had inventoried the attractions
of several unattached females of the community, though the thought of
Zaida Finch, as designed by Providence to solace his loneliness, had
never crossed his mind. But now that Doolittle's indiscreet opposition
had turned his thoughts in her direction, Deacon Wiggins said to
himself that he might go further and fare worse. Miss Finch was a fine
woman, a little undersized and scrawny for his taste, but a woman
of good temper and good principles, eminently qualified to make a
satisfactory wife. Seemingly the newly-awakened ardor of Jim Doolittle
was like a searchlight, illuminating virtues hitherto unnoticed. The
deacon reached for his whip and surprised the sorrel mare by a cut
across the flank. Mentally he had crossed his Rubicon.

Miss Finch, placidly ignorant of the designs of Destiny, had passed a
pleasant day. She had found it an immense relief to have Mr. Forbes
away, even for twenty-four hours, for she never lost the sense of
walking amid pitfalls while he was in the house. Agatha, in the rebound
from the necessity of acting the rôle of an elderly maiden lady, had
been more whimsically childish than usual, and had imparted to her
faded little friend something of her own irresponsibility. Accordingly
Miss Finch passed a pleasant day, and a peaceful night, and woke in the
morning quite unprepared for what fate had in store.

In Forbes' absence, the arrival of the Free Delivery was only an
ordinary incident in the day's routine. Miss Finch went down the drive
to get the mail a half-hour or so after the wagon had passed. And when
in another half-hour it occurred to Agatha to inquire as to the results
of that expedition, it took her a good five minutes to locate Miss
Finch. At length her search brought her to a weather-beaten bench under
the trees, where Miss Finch had seated herself as if to rest from the
fatigue of the walk up the drive. At her feet were scattered various
items of mail, which had slid off her lap in the stress of her emotions
and lay on the grass unnoticed.

"Well, Fritz, you must have found some absorbing reading," Agatha
began. "I've screamed myself hoarse calling you." She paused,
regarding her old friend with sudden concern. Miss Finch's face was
singularly flushed and her pupils dilated like those of a sleep-walker.
In either hand she clutched a letter.

"Fritz, what it is?" Agatha exclaimed in real alarm. "Aren't you
feeling well?"

Much to her relief, Miss Finch's head turned in her direction. Up to
this time she had seemed oblivious to her presence.

"Yes, I feel all right, Agatha," she replied, her voice dreamy and
unnatural. "I--I'm going to be married."

The violence of Agatha's start indicated an almost uncomplimentary
incredulity.

"You are--what did you say, Fritz?"

"I'm--I'm going to be married."

"For heaven's sake! Who is it?"

Miss Finch's manner lost something of its assurance.

"I haven't quite--made up my mind."

Agatha's expression of astonishment changed quickly to consternation.
She came close to the little lady, slipping a hand through her arm.

"Fritz, dear, hadn't you better come to the house and lie down? The
sun is awfully hot, and you shouldn't have gone out without a hat." She
studied Miss Finch's unnatural color with a sinking heart. Was it a
touch of the sun or something worse?

Miss Finch, though perfectly aware of the nature of Agatha's
apprehensions, showed no resentment. Indeed the difficulty she had
experienced in combating her own incredulity enabled her to sympathize
with her young friend's perplexity.

"When I say I haven't made up my mind, I mean I haven't decided which
one to marry."

"Yes, I see, Fritz. Now let's go to the house. Just lean on me." Phemie
would have to go for the doctor, Agatha decided. She herself would not
dare to leave.

"If you don't believe me," exclaimed Miss Finch, a sense of injury at
last making itself manifest in her voice, "you can read the letters for
yourself."

Agatha snatched the extended missive, thankful for anything that would
throw light on Miss Finch's singular hallucination. Her stubborn
incredulity received its first shock when she saw Miss Finch's name
written across the yellow envelope in an unmistakably masculine hand.
The contents of the letter completed her undoing.

 "Miss Zaida Finch:

 "Dear Friend--I have always believed the truth of those words of
 Scripture that it is not good for man to be alone. (Gen. 2:18.) Three
 dear companions have I taken to myself only to yield them to the cold
 and silent tomb. Have you ever thought of changing your state? You are
 so much in my thoughts that it seems a leading to show that it is you
 who should fill the place of my three lost companions, till you, too,
 shall be called from battle to reward.

 "I hope you will make this matter a subject of prayer, and will see
 your way clear to accept me as your husband. Write me how you feel
 about it. I enclose stamp.

 "Yours truly,

 "Hiram L. Wiggins."

Agatha read the unusual document breathlessly, too relieved by the
discovery that Miss Finch's mind was not seriously affected to
appreciate to the full the unique literary quality of the composition.
Deacon Wiggins actually was proffering Miss Finch his hand and so much
of his heart as had not been consigned to the tomb along with the three
deceased ladies who had borne his name. Agatha's impressions of the
deacon were vaguely hostile, yet she realized that from Miss Finch's
standpoint, the occasion called for congratulations. Agatha was not
unaware of the little spinster's attitude of wistful anticipation
where matrimony was concerned. And though it was difficult to think
of Deacon Wiggins as the realization of a romantic dream, she warned
herself that she must not be a kill-joy.

"I'm sure, Fritz," Agatha said, with no trace of her usual mischief,
"that the deacon will be very fortunate if you decide--" She checked
herself, for Miss Finch was extending a second letter.

"For the love of Mike," Agatha gasped, borrowing from Howard's
vocabulary as her own seemed inadequate. "You don't mean there's
another?"

"Yes, there are two, Agatha," said Miss Finch, and under the
circumstances her flitting expression of complacency was quite
excusable.

The dreadful suspicion flashing through Agatha's mind, that the
guileless Miss Finch had been made the butt of a peculiarly obnoxious
practical joke, vanished as she read Jim Doolittle's letter. It was too
characteristic for her to doubt its authorship.

 "Dear Zaida:

 "Please excuse me calling you Zaida, for as Zaida you are enshrined in
 my thoughts, and I think of you very often when I am sad and lonely
 and I wish I had a wife like you to cheer me, and to be a help-meet to
 me like the Bible says, and while I have not married again and again
 like some people I could name it has not been because I do not have
 a high opinion of women. And if I should be left alone I should not
 go looking for some one to take your place right away, for with me to
 love once is to love always, and, dear Zaida, my heart beats for you
 alone.

 Yours truly,

 "James Doolittle."

Agatha was seized with a paroxysm of coughing, the businesslike
conclusion of the letter seeming decidedly inconsistent with its
impassioned prelude. Then, recovering herself, she went over to Miss
Finch and kissed her.

"Well, Fritz, you're a lot too good for either one, but women are, as a
rule. Which is it to be?"

Miss Finch looked down at her first love-letters with an anxious
expression, hardly befitting the occasion.

"Well, Agatha, I'm not sure. There is a great deal of sentiment in Mr.
Doolittle's letter. It's almost poetical in spots. I wouldn't have
thought he had so much poetry in him?"

"Nor I," admitted Agatha.

"But the deacon's letter shows a beautiful religious spirit, and when
you are choosing a husband you have to think of the things that are
really important."

"The deacon is better off than Mr. Doolittle," suggested Agatha.
"Though I've always heard he was inclined to be close."

"I wouldn't let such things weigh with me, Agatha. I can't imagine
marrying a man because he had more money than somebody else. It's what
a man is himself that counts with me."

"Then I suppose it's the deacon," said Agatha, with youth's
characteristic readiness to jump at conclusions.

"I don't know, I'm sure. Don't hurry a body so, Agatha." Miss Finch
spoke more sharply than was her wont. "If you were picking out a
husband at my time of life, you wouldn't want to be rushed so that,
like enough, you'd pick the wrong man."

Agatha shook her head. "No, Fritz, if I ever became such a
heart-breaker that I had a batch of proposals in a single mail, I'd
take as long as I could to make up my mind. I'd make the sweetness last
like an all-day sucker."

Miss Finch's brief irritation vanished as she heard herself referred to
as a heart-breaker. She blushed not unbecomingly.

"The names might help you in making up your mind," continued Agatha,
bent on giving all the assistance in her power. "Which is the
more--what is that word--mellifluous in your ears, Mrs. Wiggins, Mrs.
Deacon Wiggins, or Mrs. James Doolittle?"

"I'm afraid you're not as serious-minded as you ought to be, Agatha,"
chided Miss Finch. "Marriage is 'most anything you like except a joke,
and you can't make a joke of it, no matter how hard you try." As she
moved toward the house with her two letters, leaving Agatha to collect
the widely scattered mail, her face wore a troubled, anxious look, as
if the fateful solemnity of the married state already had reached out
from the future and enveloped her.



CHAPTER X

A CONFESSION


Because of her absorption in Miss Finch's engrossing problem, Agatha
gave the travelers of the household less of her attention on their
return that afternoon than those rather spoiled individuals had reason
to expect. Not till the following morning when she read Forbes a letter
from Julia, even more egotistic than the average communication of that
self-centered young woman, did Agatha realize that something was amiss
with her boarder. He seemed tired and low-spirited, disinclined to
conversation, in decided contrast to Howard, who was bubbling over with
items of interest relating to their brief trip. Clearly the jaunt had
been too much for the convalescent's strength.

A little conscience-stricken that she had not earlier made the
discovery, Agatha set herself resolutely to the task of reviving
Forbes' drooping spirits, though with less than her usual success.
And when late in the afternoon she suggested a walk, pleading that her
knees were growing stiff from lack of exercise, he turned the tables
on her unexpectedly by insisting that she go for a stroll with Howard
as an escort, leaving him at home. And as her protest stirred him to a
most uncharacteristic irritation, she yielded the point without further
argument.

"Of course, if you really want to get rid of us, we'll go. Only I hate
to leave you alone."

"I'm better company for myself than for others, dear lady. I'd rather
be alone for a little. I'll try to sleep and perhaps I'll wake in a
better humor."

Her only thought an impatient haste to have the ordeal over, Agatha
started out, Howard in attendance. But her dejection yielded by degrees
to the magic of the summer afternoon. It vanished completely when she
challenged her brother to a race across a green stretch of pasture.
They reached their goal laughing and breathless, Agatha in the lead,
and climbing the low stone wall they dropped panting in the shade of
a guardian elm. Agatha snuggled back against the huge trunk, tucking
her feet under her, while Howard sprawled happily at her side, laying
his head in her lap. Agatha's contented sigh as she ran her fingers
through his hair, told of relaxed nerves.

"What a pity Mr. Forbes wouldn't come! It's so restful here. What did
he do yesterday to tire him so?"

"He didn't do much of anything. Saw the doctor and Mr. Warren and
then--"

"Warren? Did he see him?"

"Sure. Telephoned the first thing when we got to the city and Mr.
Warren came up to the hotel for lunch. They let me go out and look
around for a couple of hours while they talked. Say, Aggie, I wish you
knew Mr. Warren. He's a dandy."

Agatha's expressive face betrayed no especial impatience to meet
the object of Howard's eulogy. Indeed a grim tightening of her lips
indicated that on this theme her brother and herself were far from
agreement. But before the boy had time to be impressed by her lack
of responsiveness, his attention was distracted by a cough from the
direction of the road, eminently a stagey cough, due not to a tickling
in the throat, but to some one's desire to announce his presence.
Howard turned sharply, then sprang to his feet with a shout of mingled
pleasure and astonishment.

"Why, hello, Mr. Warren! Did you come out to find us? It's the funniest
thing but I was talking about you this very minute."

Warren, immaculate in a gray business suit and spotless panama, gave no
indication of sharing the boy's pleasure in the unexpected encounter.
He looked at him with disconcerting steadiness, and Howard, turning to
his sister, saw her unconcealed consternation and realized that the
game was up. He had momentarily forgotten the necessity of explaining
Aggie. Mr. Warren would have to know the truth and undoubtedly would
take it on himself to acquaint Mr. Forbes with the surprising state of
affairs. Yet after all, Mr. Warren was a good sport. Perhaps if the
thing were put up to him--

Warren's peremptory speech broke in on the boy's confused thoughts.
"Chase along, Howard. I don't want you at present."

"What do you want me to do, Mr. Warren?"

"I don't care what you do as long as you don't stay here."

"I--but I--" Without understanding his sense of discomfiture, Howard
blushed an angry scarlet, and faced the intruder with instinctive
defiance. Then Agatha spoke wearily.

"It's all right, Howard. Run along, please."

She was not easily daunted, but something in Warren's manner was
accountable for a singular chill at her heart that was like fear. She
had forgotten how big the man was, and his nose was so unexpectedly
long and his chin so heavy, and his eyes bored into her like augers and
were of a steely gray besides, which made the figure more impressive.
He seemed quite another person from the silly young man who had talked
nonsense in the kitchen that Sunday morning and ended by kissing her
cheek.

She heard Howard stumble away, muttering angrily to himself. Very
deliberately Warren moved toward her. She forced herself to lift her
eyes. He was looking down at her with the air of one who has the
whip-hand and knows it. For some undefined reason she felt herself at a
tremendous disadvantage.

"Look here," said Warren with the same hardness in his voice she had
noticed when he spoke to Howard, "this won't do, you know."

Agatha remembered that she was Hephzibah Diggs just in time to drawl
the inquiry through her nose. "What won't do?"

"You mustn't be putting ideas into the kid's head. He's a nice kid.
Forbes is tremendously interested in him and so is Miss Kent. On Miss
Kent's account if there were no other reason, you ought to let the boy
alone."

She glared at him, fury growing with understanding. Her baleful gaze
fought its way to him through tears of pure rage.

Her unexpected emotion softened him perceptibly. He laid aside his air
of judicial sternness as easily as he would have removed his coat.

"Come now," he said, seating himself beside her. "We mustn't quarrel.
And I dare say you meant no particular harm. Only keep in mind that
it's hands off where the boy is concerned."

"Have you got anything to say to me?"

"You bet I have. I've come clear from town to say it, Hephzibah. By the
way, isn't there something I could call you for short?"

"Yes, Miss Diggs."

He eyed her approvingly. A tear had splashed upon her burning cheek,
and was making its leisurely way toward her chin, but tears with Agatha
seldom gave the impression of feminine softness. Warren had the usual
masculine horror of weepy women. It was a relief to perceive that for
all her tears, Agatha's mood was murderous.

"No indeed, we mustn't quarrel," he repeated. "Because I've come on
purpose to see you, and do you a good turn. I'm interested in you, and
want to help you."

"I don't want none of your help."

"That's because you don't understand, little girl. This world is a
pretty big place and so far you've seen only a measly little corner."

"It suits me." He saw an added enmity in her eyes, over this aspersion
on her native village, and smiled tolerantly.

"I wouldn't waste any loyalty on this burg if I were in your place.
I asked half a dozen people where I could find you and every one
pretended he'd never heard of you."

Agatha's look showed her taken aback and Warren was not slow to follow
up his advantage.

"Of course I knew they were lying. Even in this unobservant community,
my dear Hephzibah, you could hardly escape notice any more than on
Broadway. I assume these young men were protecting their reputations by
denying the pleasure of your acquaintance."

"Oh," murmured Agatha, "I never thought I could hate anybody the way I
hate you."

"You shouldn't feel that way, my child. I'm not trying to hurt your
feelings. I'm perfectly ready to let bygones be bygones and give you a
hand up. I only mentioned this to show the narrowness of these little
country places. They never forget, Hephzibah, and believe me, they
never forgive."

The fire of her wrath had dried her tears. Her eyes bright with hate,
she met his gaze in silence.

"There's something about you, Hephzibah," continued Warren, a slight
uneasiness of manner showing that his _sang froid_ was not quite proof
against her silent hostility, "something which makes me certain that
it would pay to educate you. You could learn, I'm positive of it. And
you'll take on polish. You say you're satisfied with things as they
are. That only shows your ignorance, my dear child. Instead of being
a poor little drudge, slighted and snubbed by a lot of country jays,
you could make a place for yourself in the big world. I can't tell you
now just what will open up for you, but at the least it would be like
fairyland compared with what you have to expect here."

Her anger seemed to have moderated to tranquil contempt. She sat aloof
and disdainful, waiting for him to finish and take his departure.

"I own you don't know me well enough to feel sure of my motives in
making this offer," Warren went on almost humbly. "But you can ask Miss
Kent about the blind man who's boarding with her this summer, and see
what sort of reputation she gives him. And he's in this thing with me.
In fact it was at his suggestion that I came down here to-day."

At last he had succeeded in interesting her. Although she did not speak
she turned with a quickness that had the effect of an interruption, and
the recent disdainful calm of her expression was replaced by a rather
wistful look.

"Yes, Forbes is in for this, tooth and nail." Warren was pleased at the
altered demeanor of his audience. "When I first suggested it to him,
he talked it over with Miss Kent, and the old lady discouraged him. I
imagine she's a good sort but about as broad as a knitting needle. She
insisted that it was better for you to be let alone, and she talked old
Forbes over, and I thought the whole thing was settled. But after you
saved Forbes' life--"

"Why," cried Agatha. "How--how--." Her usually ready tongue failed
her, and in her blushing confusion Warren thought her adorable.

"I suppose you wonder how he knew you were his rescuer," Warren
continued, enjoying to the full the pleasing effect of his revelation.
"It came to him by a sort of intuition. He quizzed the kid, but Howard
wouldn't tell. It simply goes to show how strait-laced the old lady
is. She'd forbidden him even to talk about you. But something you said
or did fitted in with what I had told Forbes about you, and he decided
that he couldn't rest easy under such an obligation."

"It's only a guess." Agatha had found her voice. "You don't know
anything about it."

"It was a safe bet, even before I told you and watched your face. Now
it's a dead certainty. Listen! Forbes came to see me yesterday and we
cocked up this scheme. See how it strikes you."

He had her attention now, close and serious, with no suggestion of
disdain. Painstakingly he explained the plan. They had selected a woman
both knew to act as Hephzibah's tutor. They would send her to some
quiet place where there would be little to distract the girl's thoughts
from her work. Her tutor, an impoverished gentlewoman, would undertake
the cultivation of manners befitting the best society, and would mold
her literary taste by reading to her from the English classics, in
addition to her regular instruction.

"I don't say it will be so very much fun for six months," Warren owned
frankly. "But we both think it would be a good idea for you to work for
all you are worth at the start, and make all the progress possible. And
when once you--well, when the rough edges are smoothed off a little,
you can come to town and mix in a little fun with the day's work. What
do you think of the idea?"

Agatha's answer was a shake of her head.

"Too strenuous a program, is it?" Warren looked disappointed at her
lack of ambition. "Well, it isn't necessary to travel at such a pace.
Both Forbes and I felt it would be more encouraging to you in the long
run, if your advancement was so rapid that you couldn't help realizing
it."

"Yes, that would be better if--but it won't work. Thank you. It's kind
of you, but I--I can't go away."

"Away? Do you mean away from this hole in the woods?"

Agatha nodded with no attempt to defend her native place against his
sneers.

"This home of yours, where a nice kid like Howard is forbidden to speak
of you, and where older men look scared when your name is mentioned and
say they never heard of you?"

"You said all that before." Agatha had turned rather white. "And it
won't do any good to say it again."

Warren studied her averted face, a pensive face at that moment. He had
a confused certainty that he had been too hard on her. He had only
spoken the truth and for her good, but he had overdone it. He had been
brutal.

"Hephzibah," he said suddenly, a new gentleness in his voice, "I know
what's the matter with you. You're in love."

There was something so virginal in her protesting recoil that he had to
stop a moment for breath. Yet a quality in the movement gave him an odd
conviction of her innate fineness, in spite of that chapter in her past
he found it hard to forget.

"There's no other explanation, Hephzibah." He tried to speak lightly
without any great degree of success. "When a girl of your sort sticks
to a place of this sort, like a barnacle to a ship's bottom, it's as
sure as shooting that there's a man in the case. Come, Hephzibah, own
up."

She lifted her chin in a regal way she had--an incongruous motion in
a country girl who "worked out"--and looked at him squarely. With a
little thrill he saw that her eyes had filled again. And though she did
not speak, those brimming eyes seemed a brave, frank avowal that his
surmise had hit the mark.

"Well, Hephzibah, I'm glad you aren't going to need our help--Forbes'
and mine--in order to be happy. I hope your young man knows he's
lucky." He was astonished at the keenness of the pang which marked this
formal renunciation. "When is it to be, Hephzibah?"

"Why, it's not--you don't understand--I'm not going to be married."

Warren sat up straight. "The devil, you're not," he said, his voice
harshly cynical.

The girl rose and stamped her foot on the grass. The soft turf
swallowed the sound, but the passionate gesture was not less impressive
because noiseless. "You hush!" she said. "Don't you dare to think
things like that about him. He's perfect. He never harmed anybody,
never! And for you to dare to blacken him with your beastly thoughts
just because I've been fool enough to care."

Swayed by unprecedented emotion, Warren rose to his feet. In her
earlier anger the girl had been merely a lovely virago. Now, in her
furious defense of the man he had apparently misjudged, she was superb.
Warren felt himself swept from his moorings.

"Very well, Hephzibah. I'll take your word for it that he's all right."

"He doesn't know. He doesn't even dream. There's--He loves some one
else."

"Don't, Hephzibah. Poor little girl! What a damned muddle life is." He
was fumbling for his card.

"Can you write, dear?"

"After a fashion." All in a minute she was another woman, with radiant
mischief peering out of her eyes.

"Here's my address on this card. If you should change your mind, write
me. I hope and believe you will. Just because one man is blind, it
doesn't follow that there's nothing else in life."

She gave a slight start, looking at him obliquely, the mischief
quite gone from her eyes. But she accepted his card, and then of her
own accord gave him her hand. "You have been good to take so much
trouble," she said. "Thank you." The two had changed markedly since the
dialogue under the elm tree began. The girl's hostility had vanished as
completely as the man's condescension.

On his way back to the city that night, Warren evolved the theory
that Hephzibah was originally of gentle blood. That accounted for the
quality of her beauty, for something in her manner suggesting one
accustomed to homage rather than to service. Warren was inclined to
believe it also explained a singular fact which impressed him more as
he thought over the events of the afternoon than it had at the time.
There could be no question but that in moments of extreme excitement,
a certain uncouthness disappeared from her speech and manner, and
she lapsed, so to speak, into the idioms of her presumably cultured
forebears. In Warren's opinion this cast a most interesting side-light
on the subject of heredity.



CHAPTER XI

A WILFUL MAN MUST HAVE HIS WAY


Though there was no likelihood of another letter from Julia for a week
at least, Forbes showed an abnormal interest in the contents of the
mail bag, and Agatha guessed he was expecting to hear from Warren.
She, too, found herself anxiously anticipating the arrival of the
letter addressed in the vigorous hand which in some obscure way was so
suggestive of the man's personality. When it came four days after that
unique dialogue under the elm tree, and the duty of reading it devolved
upon herself, Agatha's heart beat suffocatingly.

But as it proved, all her thrills were anticipatory. The letter itself
contained nothing she did not already know, and that little was told
tersely and obscurely, evidently with the intention of preventing Miss
Kent, the probable reader, from learning that her counsel had been
ignored. With businesslike brevity Warren stated that he attended
to the matter they had discussed the previous week. He, Forbes, was
correct in his conjecture as to the identity of the party who had
done him the service he had spoken of, but said party had turned his
proposition down flat. "And now that our consciences are clear," Warren
wrote, "the only thing left is to drop the whole matter. Hope the
unpleasant effect of your treatments has worn off and that your eyes
are feeling better.

 "R.W."

It was plain from the expression of Forbes' face that he shared
Agatha's uncomplimentary opinion of the communication in question. The
remainder of the day he was frowningly contemplative, resisting all
efforts to draw him into conversation. For the first time Agatha saw in
his face lines suggesting a determination akin to stubbornness.

By morning his manner showed the relief of having reached a decision.
Agatha was not unprepared to have him say at the conclusion of the
morning meal, "Miss Kent, when you have a little time I would like to
have a talk with you."

"I can come now."

"There's no hurry--no especial hurry, that is. Any time this forenoon."

But Agatha's curiosity was awakened. She conducted him out upon the
porch, ensconced him in a comfortable chair, and seated herself beside
him. As a preliminary, he took her hand and kissed it.

"I must begin with a confession, my dear lady. I have been keeping a
secret from you, in fact more than one."

"Dear me! And I thought you had accepted me as mother confessor."

"So I have. I decided not to tell you for fear of worrying you. But the
truth is that I came near walking over the cliff one afternoon, when I
was out with Howard, and ending my troubles by breaking my neck."

Agatha succeeded in expressing a sufficient degree of shocked horror in
her exclamation.

Forbes patted her hand reassuringly. "But I didn't, you see. My life
was saved in a conventionally romantic way. A beautiful girl flung
herself into my arms, and when she could get her breath, gave me a
terrific scolding."

"Oh!" Agatha looked at him with unfeigned interest. "How did you know
she was beautiful? Did Howard tell you?"

"No, Warren."

"Oh!" She seemed a little disappointed. "But he wasn't there, was he?"

"No, but he'd told me about her. And I think I should have known
anyway."

"How?" Again he noted the animation in her tone.

"I'm not quite sure. Perhaps a blind man develops a sort of sixth
sense. Anyway, as I stood there with my arms about her--it was
necessary in the circumstances, and you needn't look shocked as I
suspect you're doing--I had as vivid an impression of youth and beauty
as if I'd seen her."

"More so, probably," amended Agatha joyously.

"No, not if Warren's right. He says she's something extraordinary.
Can't you guess who it was?"

"I believe that Mr. Warren"--Agatha seemed to be searching her memory
for details--"talked rather extravagantly about Hephzibah."

"Yes, Hephzibah was the girl. And that puts quite a new light on
Warren's plan for educating her, don't you see?"

"No, I don't." Agatha's brevity implied distaste for the subject.

"Well, I do. A man's chance interest in a pretty girl may be perfectly
innocent and unobjectionable, but you can't compare it with what one
feels for the woman who has saved one's life."

"I told you that she wanted to be left alone. I told you that it would
be kinder."

"Wait, please." Under the deference of his manner, she perceived a
resolution that was adamant. "I've told you only one of the secrets
that I have kept from you. Here's the other. When I was in town I saw
Warren and we laid plans for taking Hephzibah's case in hand, regular
uplift proposition, don't you know. Warren was to see her and arrange
matters. We had everything settled. We had a governess selected and
had decided on a little sea-side place for them to stay until she was
presentable. Warren was going to ask a girl he knows to buy her a
suitable outfit."

"I don't wonder you've been blue," Agatha said in tones of soft
reproach. "Planning all this out and not a word to me."

To her surprise he blushed high. "No," he said after a moment, "I've
been down in the depths, God knows, but not for that reason. I
thought--well, you seemed to feel so strongly on the subject of not
interfering with Hephzibah, that I didn't want to bother you."

"And now you do? Is that why you're telling me about it?"

"I'm telling you because I want your help." He set his jaw grimly as he
faced her. "I left Warren to engineer the thing and he's bungled it."

"It wasn't his fault." Agatha evinced a commendable eagerness not to be
unjust to the absent. "When Hephzibah has made up her mind, trying to
change it is like going against a stone wall."

"Possibly. But I shan't feel satisfied till I've tried my persuasive
powers on her." Forbes sat waiting for some comment from Agatha, and
when none was offered, explained firmly, "I want an interview with her."

Still Agatha did not speak. She was beginning to feel an aversion to
Hephzibah Diggs which amounted to positive hatred. That talk with
Warren had been trying enough, with his repeated references to some
scandalous episode in her past. But for reasons perfectly clear to
Agatha herself, the interview with Forbes promised to be vastly worse.

"Well?" Forbes was puzzled by her silence. "Had she better come here?
Or shall I have Howard take me to her home?"

"Oh, no." The dismay in Agatha's voice negatived the last suggestion
conclusively. Forbes found her tremors a trifle irritating. He had
to remind himself that she was an old lady, and that for many years
her will had been supreme in her little circle. He found her hand
and patted it affectionately. He was beginning to think that these
sentimental attentions counted more with elderly women than with
younger ones.

"Well, then, we'll have her here. Will you send her word, some time
to-day?"

"I'm not sure she'll come."

"Then I'll go to her." His obstinacy showed in his voice. "I tell you
I'm going to talk to that girl. She's got a chance at last. She's young
and it's inconceivable that she should turn down such an offer if she
really understood it."

"That's the sort of girl she is. Worthless, trifling."

Forbes withdrew his hand from hers. To her amazement Agatha saw she had
really offended him. And now to her dislike of Hephzibah was added a
preposterous jealousy. She, Agatha Kent, had devoted herself to Forbes
all summer only to have him act like a spoiled child when she ventured
a criticism of a girl he had met only on one occasion, a girl with a
past, at that. What was Hephzibah to him or he to Hephzibah, that for
her sake he was ready to affront his father's old friend and his own?

"I shan't need Howard this morning," remarked Forbes pleasantly but
with a relentless holding to his purpose which forced her to realize
the hopelessness of altering his intention. "So if you please, ask him
to take the message. The girl may be all that you say, and my interest
and effort may all be wasted, but I prefer to see for myself."

"Very well," said Agatha swallowing. She perceived that he considered
her a narrow-minded old person, who thought it impossible for a woman
to return to the paths of rectitude, after once stepping aside. He
would not take her word for Hephzibah. He was determined to interview
her for himself. Agatha looked at him with narrowing eyes. Very well!
Let him take the consequences.

"I'll see that Hephzibah gets the message," she said with dignity. "I
can't answer for results."

"Of course not." Now that he had gained his point, his manner was
thoroughly friendly. "I'll take the entire responsibility for the
outcome."

Agatha realized that she was dismissed. She went up-stairs feeling
out of sorts with Forbes and positively murderous where Hephzibah was
concerned. She even played with the thought of having that obtrusive
young woman smitten with mortal illness, too sick for the interview
Forbes insisted on, and in a few days reaching the end of her brief
and troubled life. She dismissed the thought when she realized that
Forbes was capable of summoning a physician from the city to attend the
patient.

The door of Miss Finch's room was ajar. Miss Finch sat at the table
with a sheet of paper spread out before her and a pen in hand. The
seriousness of her expression suggested that she was on the point of
making her last will and testament.

"Fritz," exclaimed Agatha, appearing in the doorway, "I have a message
for you to give Hephzibah Diggs."

Miss Finch looked at her wildly.

"Will you please say that Mr. Forbes would like to see her some time
to-day. Say it's very important."

As Miss Finch continued to stare, Agatha showed signs of impatience.
"Well, why don't you begin?"

"Begin what, Agatha?"

"Why, say what I've just told you, that Mr. Forbes wants to see me this
afternoon."

Miss Finch groaned and shook her head. "Oh, Agatha, it seems so wicked."

"Wicked! If that's not unreasonable. Here I am taking all the pains to
come up-stairs to you, to have you give me the message so I won't need
to stretch the truth the least little bit, and then you talk as if I
were an ordinary prevaricator, without a conscience."

Miss Finch quailed before Agatha's simulated indignation. "Oh, if you
look at it that way," she replied feebly and made an effort to recall
the message. "Hephzibah, Mr. Forbes wants to see you to-day."

"Tell me it's very important," prompted Agatha.

"It's very important," Miss Finch repeated, and looked on the point of
bursting into tears.

"I'll be there at three o'clock," replied Agatha in the person of
Hephzibah. Then her gaze fell on the letters lying open on the table
and she temporarily forgot her own perplexities in the perennial
feminine interest in a love-affair.

"Oh, Fritz," she exclaimed, coming closer. "You're writing the letter,
aren't you? Which one is it to be?"

Miss Finch looked at the blank sheet before her with an expression
equally blank.

"Agatha," she hesitated, "it almost seems to me--at least don't you
think Mr. Doolittle is rather the best-looking?"

Agatha pondered the question with the seriousness its importance
deserved.

"I rather think he is, Fritz. The deacon is much too fat. My ideal of
manly beauty isn't broad enough to include a fat man. It's surprising
how some people thrive on bereavement."

Miss Finch fidgeted with her pen. "But perhaps the deacon is a little
more careful about his appearance."

Again Agatha acquiesced. "Mr. Doolittle is far from particular. I've
seen him in the village with only one suspender, and the usefulness of
that dependent on one anemic-looking safety-pin. I've honestly trembled
for fear of what might happen. The deacon's away in the lead in the
matter of clothes."

Again Miss Finch looked nervously at the paper before her and then
surprised Agatha by laying down her pen.

"I rather thought I'd write them to-day," she said. "It's been--well,
not long, but quite a time since their letters came, and I thought--"

She fell into an indeterminate silence, and Agatha finished the
sentence for her. "Of course they're getting impatient. It's cruel to
keep them on the rack this way. Why don't you put them out of their
misery, Fritz?"

"Why, I don't want to hurry, Agatha. I must wait to be sure. There's
some nice things about each one and some that aren't so nice. I'll have
to think it over a while yet."

Agatha was watching the little woman keenly. "Fritz," she asked with
unusual, gentle gravity, "are you sure you want either of them? Don't
you think you'd be happier just to stay on with me?"

Miss Finch regarded her interrogator with evident amazement. "Why,
Agatha, I might never have another chance."

This was too true to question. Agatha remained silent.

"I sometimes can't help wishing," Miss Finch owned plaintively, "that
there hadn't been two. That's what makes it so puzzling--having to
choose. And there seems so much to be said on both sides. But to
refuse them both--why, Agatha, it would be flying in the face of
Providence."

Agatha said no more. Leaving Miss Finch to her dreams, she went up
to the garret to find an appropriate costume for Hephzibah in her
forthcoming momentous interview. She felt she could act her rôle
with more spirit if dressed appropriately to the part. Agatha did
not underestimate the difficulty of her proposed masquerade. It was
an easy matter to evolve a personality sufficiently consistent to
deceive Warren, for Warren had never met the dignified and elderly
spinster, Miss Agatha Kent. Forbes, on the contrary, had spent hours
in that lady's company nearly every day through the summer, and knew
every inflection of her voice. The forthcoming interview with Forbes
presented any number of terrifying possibilities.

She had a word with him at a suitable interval after their late
conversation. "She's coming."

"Good!" he cried triumphantly. "Did Howard go?"

"No. Miss Finch was going to see her, anyway. She'll be here at three."

"Good!" said Forbes again. He turned to her with that mingled
gentleness and resolution which somehow revealed him in a new light.

"Now, my dear friend, I'm going to ask a favor of you. Promise me you
won't misunderstand."

"I'll try not," she said faintly, and her heart misgave her.

"Promise me that you'll leave us to ourselves when we have our little
talk. I know your interest in Hephzibah's future--"

In her relief Agatha became jocular. "No, you don't know. You can't.
Her welfare means as much to me as my own."

"I'm not doubting that. Please don't misunderstand me. But sometimes I
think these sensitive natures can open up better to a stranger than to
a friend. And the fact that I'm blind may be a help to her."

"Yes," agreed Agatha with unmistakable sincerity, "I'm pretty sure it
will be."

"There's something mysterious about that girl," Forbes continued. "The
way she refuses to listen to propositions that are all clearly for
her good, puzzles me. I'm convinced that if I can have her to myself
an hour or so, I'll get at the root of the trouble. Anyway it's worth
trying."

Relieved from the terrifying certainty that he was about to ask her to
chaperon them during the interview, Agatha had almost ceased to dread
the prospective ordeal. But prudence suggested the advisability of
seeming a little hurt. "I shouldn't have interfered in any way," she
assured him plaintively. "Since you've set your heart on talking to
Hephzibah, I should have sat quietly in the background and not said a
word."

"Better not," Forbes interposed hastily. "Let me have my way this time.
And when we talk it over afterward, I'll tell you every word that was
said as nearly as I can remember."



CHAPTER XII

HEPHZIBAH TURNS THE TABLES


Hephzibah Diggs was prompt. As the grandfather's clock in the hall
struck three, Agatha advanced to the French window opening on the
porch, and said in her natural voice, "She's here, Mr. Forbes."

Forbes smiled approval. "Send her around, please, Miss Kent." His
manner suggested that the difficulties in the way of his philanthropic
plan were now a thing of the past.

The clumping footsteps that presently announced the approach of his
visitor took him back a trifle. There was no particular reason why
Hephzibah should not be an ordinary clumsy country girl, in heavy shoes
that clattered noisily as she moved, but somehow he had not expected
it. He rose and stood awaiting her.

The voice was more unexpected than her heavy tread. It made him wince.
He remembered that Warren likened it to the melodious notes of a
guinea fowl and he appreciated the aptness of the comparison. There
was no reason why Hephzibah Diggs should not talk through her nose, and
in a harsh, strident, generally unpleasant tone. But the fact that she
did so, though he had been abundantly forewarned, took him by surprise.

"Miss Kent says you've got something to say to me."

Thus Hephzibah announced her presence. And Forbes, hastily summoning
a smile, and resolutely excluding his pain from his voice, extended a
cordial hand.

"I'm very glad to meet you, Miss Hephzibah. Won't you sit down? I think
there's a chair near."

"I'll wait on myself, don't you bother none." A grating noise indicated
that a chair was being dragged across the floor of the porch into
convenient nearness to his own. A plumping sound gave evidence that
Hephzibah had seated herself.

The picture in the rustic chair deserved a more appreciative audience
than a blind man. Hephzibah wore a costume best described as a medley,
since garments originally the property of Miss Finch and Howard,
as well as her own, contributed to the startling effect. A pair of
Howard's outgrown shoes accounted for her clumsy tread. She wore a
little bonnet which Miss Finch had discarded after some dozen years of
service, and which seemed genuinely scandalized at finding itself atop
Agatha's brazenly assertive mass of hair. A very short calico skirt,
also the property of Miss Finch, and a sky-blue silk waist, evidently
designed for festive wear, completed the grotesque costume. Just why it
should have given Agatha confidence in playing her rôle, she knew as
little as any one.

Forbes commented pleasantly on the weather as some such preliminary
skirmishing seemed necessary before coming to the point. He had
resolved on establishing a friendly understanding between Hephzibah
and himself, before making the offer which, he realized, might readily
arouse the suspicion of a girl who knew by bitter experience that men
are not always to be trusted. He was inclined to suspect Warren of
lacking tact, startling her by his failure to employ _finesse_. He did
not take himself into his own confidence fully enough to admit that he
was also sparring for time in the effort to recover his poise. It was
singular that he had received so different an impression of Hephzibah
in the brief, bewildering interview which had opened by his clasping
her in his arms, and ended by her refusal to tell her name. He had
to remind himself that on the springy turf her clumsy tread would be
soundless, and that the gasping whisper in which she spoke gave him no
clue as to the quality of her voice. Still, if Warren's letter had not
expressly assured him that Hephzibah was his mysterious rescuer, he
would have felt sure that he had been mistaken.

Hephzibah was in full accord with his favorable opinion of the weather.
She expressed her agreement so heartily that he winced again, and
conquered an impulse to tell her that it was unnecessary to speak so
loud.

"I suppose," he began, deciding that after all it would be better to
waive further introductory remarks, "that you must have wondered why I
wanted to see you."

"I didn't bother about that none," replied Hephzibah. "I've had a lot
to do with sick folks, and I know they're likely to take 'most any sort
of notion into their heads."

Forbes reddened smartly. He felt as if he had been slapped. Clearly
tact was not in Hephzibah's line.

"I've heard a good deal about you, first and last," he assured her
pleasantly. "And of course my interest in you was increased by what
happened near Indian Rock the other afternoon. I'm not going to talk
about that for I know you would rather I wouldn't."

"Oh, don't mind me," Hephzibah returned comfortably. "You can say
anything you like. You can't make me mad."

Forbes hesitated. There is no doubt that on the moment he acquitted
Miss Kent of a certain charge to which she had been given no chance to
plead guilty. He realized that women sometimes understood one another
better than a mere man might hope to do. But he had put his hand to
the plow with the intention of proving Warren's unfitness in matters
requiring diplomacy, and he had no intention of turning back.

Deliberately and with carefully chosen words, Forbes explained to
Hephzibah the plan he had evolved for her regeneration. He went more
into detail than Warren had done. He traced her future years from the
present modest start, up to the time when she should bear the stamp of
culture, and be able to hold her own in the best society. The picture
that he drew seemed to him an attractive one. He showed himself not
altogether lacking in a knowledge of the opposite sex, by the emphasis
he placed upon the friend of Warren's to whom had been assigned the
responsibility of selecting a suitable wardrobe for Hephzibah.

He did not pause till he was pleasantly confident that he had done the
subject justice. He turned his sightless eyes upon her expectantly.
Hephzibah said nothing. There was a chilling quality in her protracted
silence.

"Well?" questioned Forbes, and though he had been so favorably
impressed by his putting of the case, he spoke a little anxiously.
"What do you think of it all?"

Hephzibah laughed unmusically.

"Well, I let you go on, just so's to get it off your chest. There ain't
nothing to it, not so far as I can see. The clothes would be nice
enough, but if I had to study all the time and have some dame bossing
me my days off and all, I'd pay for 'em dear."

"But wouldn't you like to be educated?"

"Laws, no. I never hankered to be a school-teacher. I'd rather cook any
day in the week."

By this time Forbes was convinced that Miss Kent was right. Something
was lacking in Hephzibah. He realized that he himself had been
influenced more than he knew by Warren's extravagance, and Warren, it
was apparent, had been swept off his feet by the girl's fresh beauty.
Just how to explain the impression he himself had formed of her that
day when she swung her lithe body between him and mortal peril, Forbes
did not know. She had said little, and that with difficulty, because
of her breathless condition, and yet the impression he had formed of
her was infinitely removed from the truth. He felt now that he had made
a mistake, and that Hephzibah was not of the fiber to take on polish
readily. He would show his gratitude in some more appropriate way than
by attempting her education. But since he had blundered into this
rather absurd situation, there was nothing left but to go through with
it.

"You do not have to use your education in teaching school, unless you
wish to," he explained patiently. "But it will fit you for a better
social position." He realized that this was over her head and kindly
simplified it. "I mean that the more you learn, the nicer friends you
will have and the more things you will find to interest you."

"I know enough now," Hephzibah insisted calmly, "for anybody that ain't
a teacher. When I went to district school I learned to read and write
and figure, and I 'most always stood up till near the last when we had
spelling matches. Oh, I've got an education all right."

"Possibly, my child, it would be better to rely on the judgment of some
one else." His manner was patiently paternal.

Hephzibah Diggs shuffled her feet noisily. "I guess I know enough to
'tend to my own affairs," she said, her tone truculent.

"I'm not so sure about that, Hephzibah. I think you would do much
better to take advice."

"How'd you like it yourself if folks you didn't know came butting in,
telling you how to manage your business?"

"If it was meant kindly, I should be grateful."

"Oh, very well." He could hear that she was breathing hard. "Then I'll
tell you that for a sensible man you're making as big a botch of your
affairs as anybody I ever knew of."

Forbes was unfeignedly astonished. "Why, Hephzibah, you don't know what
you're talking about."

"Don't I, though. I know about that girl of yours, and what a fool
she's making of you."

Forbes caught his breath. Then he realized that it was beneath his
dignity to be angry. "I think it is hardly necessary," he said stiffly,
"to discuss that subject, Hephzibah."

"Oh, no! you can stick your finger into my pie all you want to. You can
tell me I ought to go to some place I never heard of, with somebody I
never knew, and do everything I hate for years and years, but when I
say one thing about your girl, it's hardly necessary to discuss that
subject."

The last words were given with what he realized was an excellent
imitation of his own air of dignified aloofness. This amused him and
had the additional effect of mollifying his irritation. "But I am
interfering in your affairs, because I have your interests at heart,"
he said very kindly.

"Same here. I hate like the mischief to see a nice gentleman made a
fool of by a vain, silly girl with about as much brains as a cockroach,
and as much heart as a pancake."

This description of Julia, though he would have indignantly denied that
it had the remotest resemblance to truth, roused him to the realization
that this uncouth young woman knew more of his personal affairs than
she had any right to know.

"Hephzibah," he said sternly, "I don't understand where you could have
secured information about any friends of mine. Surely Miss Kent--"

For all her faults, Hephzibah was capable of magnanimity. On one
critical occasion Miss Kent had sacrificed Hephzibah's reputation to
save herself, and Hephzibah was under no obligation to spare hers. Yet
without hesitation she threw herself into the breach. "I listened," she
explained quickly.

"You mean when Miss Kent was reading me my letters?" His flushed face
told that he was not disposed to belittle her eavesdropping.

"Yes, and when you talked things over. I heard enough to know that
you'd better use the brains the Lord gave you to manage your own
affairs. Why don't you put it up to that girl of yours that she can
take you or leave you?"

"Really, Hephzibah--"

"Oh, it's all right for you to come along and pry into my business, and
tell me what _I'm_ to do. But when I turn the tables you squirm. Funny
what a difference it makes whose foot the shoe's on."

Forbes subsided. Under his feeling of bewilderment was a vague
suspicion that perhaps there was something in Hephzibah's point of view.

"In the first place," continued this intrepid young woman, "she showed
she was no good when she throwed you down like she did. She was going
to marry you, wasn't she? And if she cared enough about you for that,
it was up to her to stand by you when trouble came. Pretty kind of wife
she'd have made if she turned her back the minute hard luck struck you."

Forbes remembered vaguely that Miss Kent had once said something
similar. He wondered that two human beings so unlike should have the
same view-point.

"You got off easy," Hephzibah continued. "You might have married her.
When she showed herself up for what she was, you'd ought to have got
down on your marrow-bones and thanked the Lord. But look at you!
Instead, you keep on telling her how much you love her and that a
yellow streak don't matter--in a woman."

Forbes suddenly realized that he could endure no more. He could not
listen longer to these preposterous statements. But underneath his
panic of anger, something whispered that he shrank from listening
longer to Hephzibah's frantic speech, not because she was uttering
slanders against Julia, but because what she said was true.

He struck the arm of his chair with his clenched fist. "Stop!" he said
in a voice unlike his own. "I won't listen."

"All right," said Hephzibah Diggs. "But what's sauce for the goose--"

She stopped, starting to her feet. The blow from Forbes' fist had
loosened the arm of the chair in which he sat. It had bounced out of
place and then slipped back again, catching his finger as it returned
to base. It was his sudden startling pallor that checked Hephzibah's
fluency.

"Can you help me a little--Hephzibah?" Forbes' voice was faint, his
lips blue. "My hand--seems caught."

Hephzibah's clattering haste was too late to save him from ignominious
faintness. He had not been well since his trip to the city, and the
shock of the pain was too much for his nerves. She caught the arm of
the chair and wrenched it savagely away, just as his head fell over
against her shoulder. She released the imprisoned hand, and slipping
her arm about him kept his limp body from sliding to the floor. Upon
his white face, she saw, conscience-stricken, there seemed to rest an
expression of piteous bewilderment.

Forbes reviving found himself indoors. He was stretched on the couch in
the living-room. The odor of camphor was much in evidence and his hair
felt damp, as if he had been taking a dip in the surf. Some one was
chafing his hand. "Hephzibah," he said faintly.

The voice of Miss Kent answered him, speaking in a muffled fashion, as
if she had a cold in her head.

"She's gone. That horrible girl is gone. She shall never come near you
again."

Even after his late experience the adjective seemed to indicate
prejudice. But he did not press the point, as there was another matter
he wished cleared up.

"Did I frighten you terribly?"

"Yes--I was frightened." Her voice shook as if she wanted to cry again.
"You're not so strong as I thought. I shall have to take better care of
you. I blame myself--terribly."

This was unreasonable, but he did not stop to argue the case. "Was that
why you kissed me?" he asked. "I didn't seem to come to all at once;
consciousness came in waves and receded, you know, and once I felt
sure some one kissed my cheek, and a big tear splashed down--"

Miss Kent spoke hastily. "Oh, that was only part of your dreaming.
Fainting people often have such fancies."

"Very likely," Forbes agreed. "You see, I don't know much about
fainting. It never happened to me but once before." He turned his
head on his damp pillow and lapsed into silence. It was the part of
discretion, perhaps, to leave Miss Kent under the impression that the
kiss was an illusion, due to his semi-conscious state, but he knew
better. It was as real as music, or flame, or electricity. It had
certain characteristics of all three.

It must have been Hephzibah.



CHAPTER XIII

CONGRATULATIONS ARE IN ORDER


Murray Prendergast had proposed. The summer sport had become dead
earnest. Julia wrote Forbes the full details, explaining that the young
man was awaiting her answer, and that she had asked two weeks in which
to come to a decision. Apparently Julia, like Miss Finch, felt that
to refuse Prendergast would be flying in the face of Providence, even
though accepting him seemed a harsh necessity.

"'It's not what you and I dreamed of in the dear old days,'" wrote
Julia. "'Oh, Burton, how far away those happy times seem when we sat
hand in hand and planned our future. How merciless life is, Burton! Is
there some dark fate in whose hands we are only puppets?'"

Agatha broke off in her reading to lift a scarlet face. "Must I go on
with this?"

"Do you mean that you're tired?" Forbes' voice was self-controlled but
in his pale cheeks a pulse beat like a trip hammer. Even his tears
would not have hurt her like that palpitating spot over which his will
was powerless.

"Yes, I _am_ tired. I'm terribly tired of the people who talk about
fate when it's all their own cowardice, and pity themselves for losing
what they deliberately threw away."

"It's a matter of view-point," said Forbes tonelessly. "If that's all,
I'm afraid I must ask you to go on. I--I could hardly have Howard
read it." All at once his white cheek showed a stain of red, as if
the mere thought that any eyes but his own should see that letter was
humiliating beyond endurance.

Julia's letter was as long as usual and decidedly more sentimental.
She surrendered herself with abandon to the luxury of heart-break.
She recalled a number of tender episodes, and wondered pathetically
why fate could not have spared lovers so fond. To Agatha, Julia's
melancholy was a theatrical make-believe on the face of it, as much
a pose as her pretense of affection. Agatha did her best to spoil
the effect of the letter by reading rapidly, and in a monotonous
sing-song, but she could not keep her eyes from the face of the man
before her, and she saw that every tender memory the missive evoked
found response in his tortured heart.

She wound up breathless and hot and trembling uncontrollably. Forbes
thanked her with a formal courtesy that added to her pain, for it
seemed to set her at a distance. She wanted to put her arms about him,
and cry over him, and tell him that the hurt would not last. Then she
remembered with bitterness that she was a withered old woman in whose
heart the fires of love had burned to ashes, long, long before, if
indeed they had ever been kindled.

"I'd like a sheet of paper, please," Forbes said with the same
laborious politeness. "I'll scrawl a line myself."

"What are you going to tell her?"

His air of surprise at the question indicated that there was but one
answer. "What is there to say, except to wish her all happiness?"

"You're not going to blame her, then?"

"God forbid." He took the sheet she gave him, wrote upon it rapidly
and folding it across, handed it back to her. "I'll have to ask you to
direct the envelope for me," he said, still heart-breakingly patient.
"I can write well enough for Julia's eyes, but not for Uncle Sam's."

Agatha did not reply. The breeze, always fresh upon the porch, had
parted the folded sheet, and her reluctant gaze caught the signature,
"Always yours, B.F." She turned away her eyes and caught her breath.
"Always yours." That was the cruelty of it. Julia would marry Murray
Prendergast and yet keep her hold on the heart of the man she had
abandoned in his need. Her selfishness could not alter his loyalty.
If the letter just read did not reveal her to him in her incomparable
egotism, nothing ever would.

Agatha's heart bled for him in his white resignation. If he had done
anything but sit there like a man under sentence of death, she would
have felt equal to the occasion. But this white suffering terrified
her. She dared not trust herself to look at him, for her eyes ran
over at the sight of his drawn face. She stared out over the serene
landscape as she said unsteadily, "Did you ask her to wait?"

"Wait? Why wait?"

"For you to get well, of course. If she's so fond of you, she ought to
be able to wait a year or two until you've recovered your sight."

He shrugged his shoulders without replying, but the gesture revealed
more than hopelessness, something alarmingly akin to indifference. And
though Agatha knew that in the nature of the case, this mood could not
last, it added fuel to her hatred of the shallow, selfish woman who
was responsible. In her serener moments Agatha comforted herself by
the reflection that however unhappy Forbes might be without Julia, he
was bound to be more unhappy with her. But in the present crisis that
consolation failed her. She was swayed by the desire to give him, at
all costs, the thing he wanted.

Her plan was formed in an instant. Agatha was aware that with many
women as with all men, undisputed possession tends to indifference.
Forbes' one chance with Julia, she implicitly believed, was to awaken
in the mind of that complacent young woman a doubt as to whether her
unfortunate lover was in reality hers always, as he declared himself.
Forbes, who scorned to ask even for a few months' delay, could not be
expected to lend himself to the scheme unfolding in Agatha's fancy.
Some friend must do for him what he would not stoop to do for himself.

As Agatha walked to the writing-desk, holding the folded sheet pinched
shut with thumb and finger, for fear of again reading the assurance of
Forbes' unalterable devotion, there was something oddly gallant in her
bearing. Her keen common sense was temporarily quiescent. Her heart had
things all its own way. Since the prospect of losing Julia irrevocably
had graven that terrible look upon Forbes' face, she must find some way
of making Julia hesitate to engage herself to Prendergast There was but
one chance, as far as Agatha could see. She resolved to take it.

No one could consider it singular, Agatha decided, as she seated
herself, if an amiable old lady should send a note of congratulation to
the girl to whom she had penned so many communications. Agatha almost
snatched the stationery from the drawer. She had a most unnatural
fear of losing her courage by delay. At the moment she lacked neither
courage nor inspiration.

 "My Dear Miss Studley:

 "I'm sure you will pardon a line from a woman old enough to be your
 grandmother."

Agatha paused, bit her pen and frowned. "I am, of course," she told
herself, with that odd impression of dual identity, which at times
made it difficult for her to remember whether she was nineteen or
sixty-seven. "But it isn't worth while to make her feel so youthful."
She reached for a fresh sheet of paper and made a new start.

 "My Dear Miss Studley:

 "I am sure you will pardon a line from a woman old enough to be your
 mother, who has come to feel right well acquainted with you through
 Mr. Forbes, and through reading your letters aloud to him. I want
 to be one of the first to congratulate you, and to wish you all the
 happiness you deserve."

Her pen poised in air, Agatha combated the temptation to underline the
last two words. "It's exactly what I _do_ wish her," she mused. "All
the happiness she deserves, not a bit more nor a bit less. Poor wretch,
it's an inhuman sort of wish but I can't help it, and I'm afraid she
won't realize that I'm consigning her to Purgatory."

The pen resumed its hurried scratching. It was not necessary for Agatha
to wait for inspiration. Words came in a flood.

 "Some people might blame you for your engagement, so soon after
 breaking with Mr. Forbes, but I assure you I do not feel that way. I
 am unmarried myself, and I know that when a woman loses one chance,
 she may never get another. Mr. Forbes might die or change his mind. I
 think you are very sensible to make sure of Mr. Prendergast while he
 is in the mood. Whatever ill-natured people may say about you, I for
 one will always take this view."

Agatha drew a long breath of pure satisfaction. She had undertaken the
letter with the sole thought of rushing to Forbes' assistance in his
extremity. But virtue was proving its own reward. She was enjoying
herself immensely. Her sense of satisfaction made her reckless. When
again the pen began moving down the sheet, it wrote more than Agatha
had originally intended.

 "I suppose you sometimes feel a little anxious about Mr. Forbes
 and his future. It is hard for us women to get rid of a feeling of
 responsibility for the men who love us. And I am glad I can set your
 natural misgivings at rest. It would not be a great surprise to me
 if you should hear of another engagement in the near future. Yet Mr.
 Forbes is a very honorable gentleman, I need not assure you, and as
 long as you were unmarried, or at least not engaged, he would not have
 permitted himself to become entangled with any other woman. But this
 summer he has spent a great deal of time with a girl who lives in the
 neighborhood. She is considered extremely pretty and though that does
 not mean anything to him at present, it is evident that he finds
 her company most enjoyable. Indeed I believe he is more interested
 in her than he himself realizes, while the fact that she has devoted
 practically her entire summer to him, seems to indicate that it would
 not be difficult to bring her to think of him as something more than
 a friend. And I've noticed that she seems quite responsive when he
 pats her hand or holds it, as he has a way of doing. I suppose he
 feels that an invalid has a right to some little privileges. On one
 occasion he did so far forget himself as to take her in his arms,
 but the circumstances were quite unusual, and I saw to it that the
 indiscretion was never repeated. I always manage to be around when the
 young people are together, for, as our beloved Longfellow expresses
 it, 'Man is fire and woman is tow.'

 "I'm afraid I am a poor one to talk about discretion when I am writing
 you all this. I'm sure if Mr. Forbes knew he would be very much put
 out with me, and so I am going to ask you not to speak of this if you
 should happen to write again. Very likely Mr. Prendergast will not
 approve of your corresponding with an old flame, and who can blame
 him, for as Will Carlton says so ably, 'She that is false to one can
 be the same with two,' or words to that effect. I'm afraid my memory
 is not what it once was.

 "Excuse this garrulous letter. How I have run on about Mr. Forbes
 instead of merely carrying out my first intention, and wishing you the
 future you so richly deserve.

 "Very truly yours,

 "Agatha Kent."

Agatha re-read the closely written sheets with growing delectation. In
every respect they measured up to her anticipations. She had expressed
her sentiments toward Julia with a plainness she would hardly have
believed possible in a letter superficially observing the amenities
of civilized life. She had planted some barbed suggestions where she
flattered herself they would render the reader most uncomfortable.
But that was not all. It is a thoroughly human weakness to wish to
eat one's cake and have it too, and Agatha suspected Julia of having
more than her share of this familiar characteristic. Julia, so Agatha
argued, saw herself the irreproachable wife of a wealthy man, enjoying
all the dignities incident to the Prendergast social sphere, and at the
same time the object of another man's hopeless adoration. The doubt
Agatha's letter suggested, that she could continue without a rival
to rule in Forbes' affections, was, in Agatha's opinion, Forbes' one
chance to keep her from the decisive step.

Agatha enclosed Forbes' brief communication with her own lengthy one
and despatched it by Howard before qualms could assail her as to the
advisability of dropping this particular bomb into the enemy's camp.
She knew vaguely that a host of suggestions stood marshaled at the back
of her brain, ready to demonstrate conclusively her lack of wisdom. If
Julia did not choose to consider the letter confidential, trouble would
ensue. The fact that Agatha saw all Forbes' letters, and that he knew
only what she chose to tell him, gave her but slight advantage, since
she confessed to scruples in the matter of other people's letters. And
if it had the result she believed possible, and Julia refused to engage
herself to Prendergast till Forbes' recovery was certain or proved
impossible, Agatha could not congratulate herself on having assured her
friend's happiness.

"I'm afraid I'm a good deal like a mother who gives the baby the
scissors to play with because he cries for them. Only with a baby you
can distract its attention, and make it think that something else is
just as good, and with Burton Forbes that wouldn't work."

And then having satisfied herself by peering through the window that
Forbes' face still wore the dazed look of a creature incomprehensibly
wounded, Agatha threw herself upon the couch and sought the relief of
tears. She wept as she did everything else. Hot tears rained down upon
the pillow. Sobs shook her. Every now and then mirth got the upper
hand and she laughed hysterically, interrupting, though briefly, the
Niobe-like activities.

The storm was over as suddenly as it had begun. Agatha rose and
regarded her swollen features in the mirror with much disfavor.

"I suppose it's no use to put powder on my nose. It would only look
like a strawberry sprinkled with sugar. And anyway, Mr. Forbes can't
see what a fright I am."

As if that thought had a miraculously sustaining power, Agatha drew a
long breath and passed into the kitchen to help Phemie with the dinner.



CHAPTER XIV

CONFIDENCES


Agatha had reached the conclusion that Julia was more venal than vain.
A full week she had awaited a sign that her ruse had succeeded. For
seven creeping days, dry-lipped and with unsteady pulses, she had
scanned the mail for a letter directed in Julia's familiar, hateful
hand, and in the beginning she could not have told whether there was
more of hope or of apprehension in her expectancy.

But now she knew by the way her heart was singing. Her insane attempt
to give Forbes the thing he wanted, whatever the consequences, had
gloriously failed. She had played a friend's part, if a fool's part,
and had not been punished by success. Naturally Forbes' numerous
letters had never made the slightest reference to an attractive young
girl, who was devoting her summer to rendering his exile tolerable, and
such an omission would have awakened doubt in the least suspicious
nature. To Agatha, Julia's continued silence, in the face of such
facts, was convincing proof that she had thrown up her hand and was out
of the game.

Agatha had fought Forbes' depression stubbornly while the week was
young, and then as hope strengthened, with an audacious, irresistible
gaiety that occasionally swept him off his feet. Never had it seemed
so difficult to simulate age. A score of times a day she found it
necessary to strangle a peal of girlish laughter, or tone it down to
the subdued quaver appropriate to her years. It was incredibly irksome
to subject her buoyant feet to the yoke of decorum. Never had she so
courted exposure as now when the lightening of her heart impelled her
to all sorts of foolish youthful pranks. Miss Finch watched her in dumb
fascinated terror. And Forbes despite his abysmal gloom, found himself
responding with astonishing frequency to her whirlwind spirits.

She woke early the morning of the eighth day and lay musing, too
pleasurably excited to fall asleep again. Julia was out of the way.
She had engaged herself deliberately to another man, and now it was
not Julia but a radiant memory against which she must pit her wit and
beauty. Had Agatha been older she might have questioned whether this
were an occasion for self-congratulation, since the unfading, perfect
dream has an undeniable advantage over fading and faulty beauty. But
thanks to her inexperience, the removal of Julia from her path left
her with a reckless confidence in her star. There was a tangled web
to be unraveled, to be sure, before matters were established on a
satisfactory footing, but her blithe hopefulness hurdled these grim
preliminaries, and busied itself with a future all rose-color.

A sound in the next room roused Agatha from her sanguine
self-communion, the plaintive little whine of Miss Finch's creaking
rocking chair. Agatha sprang out of bed, and carried her watch to the
window. The faint light showed the hour hand still plodding on toward
four o'clock, no hour surely for Zaida Finch to be indulging her
propensity for rocking chairs.

A white-clad figure, censoriously erect, appeared in Miss Finch's
doorway. Miss Finch gasped, jumped, and made a rush for her bed, as
if with the hope of persuading her youthful visitor that the sound of
footsteps had roused her from peaceful slumbers. Then realizing the
futility of evasion, she stopped short, and stood with hanging head,
her air of confusion together with her diminutive figure, giving her
the appearance of a naughty child.

"Fritz," began Agatha impressively, "why on earth aren't you asleep?"
As she came closer her judicial air changed to consternation. Miss
Finch's pale little eyes showed red even in the dim light. Her small
nose was redder still. Her thin cheeks were wet with tears.

"Fritz, dear," cried the girl, her voice vibrant with tenderness,
"are you sick? Does your head ache? Get into bed and let me make you
comfortable. Why didn't you call me? I've been awake an age."

This affectionate concern was too much for Miss Finch's self-control.
As she climbed into bed, she gave way to loud sobs. Agatha hung over
her, distressed and vaguely self-reproachful, because she had not
discovered earlier the urgent need of her presence.

"Don't cry, Fritzie! Shall I get you the hot water bottle, or is it
the camphor that you need? Where does it hurt?" She patted the little
sob-shaken figure with a motherly hand. Even when not impersonating her
great-aunt, Agatha frequently felt years older than Zaida Finch.

It took a minute to elicit an answer. It came finally in a little
sniffly whisper.

"My head's all right, Agatha."

"Probably that short-cake disagreed with you. I wondered at the time,
if two helps weren't too many, with the whipped cream."

"My stomach's all right, too," declared Miss Finch, a trifle pettishly.

"Then where's the pain?"

Miss Finch deliberated. Her tears gushed afresh. "I--guess it's in my
heart. I'm worried, Agatha."

Agatha sat down on the side of the bed, and sighed remorsefully.

"I know it's been a hard summer for you, Fritz. All this deception
is very trying for one of your candid temperament. I should mind it
frightfully myself if it wasn't for the fun of the thing. But I adored
amateur theatricals when I was in boarding-school, and this is exactly
the same, except that you have to make up your part as you go along. I
knew that you'd been worrying, but I didn't dream how dreadfully you'd
taken it to heart."

Miss Finch opened one swollen eye. She looked rather taken aback.

"I don't deny all this deception has worried me, Agatha. But just
now--I was thinking of something else. I'm worried about my own
affairs."

For a moment Agatha was nonplused. Miss Finch was one of the people
who seem to be without personal "affairs." She had no relatives to
die, no money to lose, no friends to disappoint her, no prospects to
be overcast. She was painfully immune against loss, by comprehensive
lack. Then on Agatha's incredulity flashed the recollection of Deacon
Wiggins and James Doolittle. In her absorption with her own concerns
she had forgotten that Miss Finch stood at a cross-roads, doubtful
which turning to take. "Oh, Fritzie," she cried self-reproachfully, "I
hope nothing's gone wrong with your love-affairs."

Miss Finch's grief lost something of its poignancy. Agatha's
exclamation seemed to establish her status. It was something to know
love's pangs, even though ignorant of its joys. Her husky voice was
controlled as she replied, "The trouble is that they haven't gone at
all, right or wrong."

"Oh!" Agatha became meditative and Miss Finch's confidences trickled on
plaintively, like a sad-hearted brook.

"I got another letter from Deacon Wiggins yesterday. He said he
guessed his first must have gone astray since he hadn't heard from me.
He went over about the same ground as he did in the first letter and
he put in a lot of Scripture. It gives one a feeling that a man can be
depended on, when he's got so much of the Bible at his tongue's end."

"Well?" Agatha interrupted hopefully.

"Then I met Mr. Doolittle on the road this afternoon and he looked
at me real reproachful, and said he was coming to see me in a day or
two. I thought he seemed," faltered Miss Finch in conscience-stricken
accents, "kind of thin and pale."

Agatha suppressed a smile. "You're keeping them dangling a rather long
time, Fritz. I never suspected you before of being a flirt." Then as
Miss Finch groaned aloud, the girl repented of her little witticism and
hastened to ask, "Aren't you any nearer to making up your mind?"

"The trouble is, Agatha," sighed Miss Finch, "that there's so many
good reasons on both sides, for and against. I've thought and thought
till it's seemed as if my head was spinning 'round on my shoulders.
You see there was a cousin of my mother's who was a second wife. She
married a man named Flagg, and I've heard her tell Ma that she got so
sick of hearing about the way the first Mrs. Flagg did things, that if
she'd risen up out of her grave, she'd have given her back her husband
as quick as she'd have turned her hand over. She said he was always
talking about his first wife's mince meat and her mustard pickles and
how saving she was, till it seemed as if there wasn't any use in her
trying to do things right."

"Well?" Agatha prompted, more to afford Miss Finch the relief of
unburdening her mind than because she failed to see the application of
the tragedy of the second Mrs. Flagg.

"Deacon Wiggins has been married three times. It's likely that some
one of those three women could do pretty near everything better than I
can," explained Miss Finch, with characteristic humility. "If it was
hard for Cousin Caroline Flagg to have one wife held up to her for an
example day and night, I don't know how I'm going to stand three of
them."

Agatha patted the limp hand clutching the damp pocket handkerchief.
"I'm sure _I_ should find three predecessors a drawback. That's where
Mr. Doolittle has the advantage."

"Yes, he seems to have, Agatha. But there's no denying that a
man who's lived fifty years without being married to anybody gets
dreadfully set in his ways. My father's sister married a man when he
was along about fifty, and she was twenty years younger. He was a
nice man, but stubborn. For one thing he always kept a pair of extra
boots standing under the bed, with the toes sticking out, so he could
change quick if he came in. Aunt Hannah was one of the nervous kind and
she had looked under the bed for a burglar all her life. When she'd
come into the room and see the toes of those boots, it always gave
her a turn, and she'd feel sure she'd found him at last. Anybody'd
have supposed she'd get used to it after a time, but she never did.
She tried her hardest to get him to keep his boots in the closet, and
she'd make shoe-bags for him, all bound around with tape and real
pretty-looking, but it wasn't any use. He said he'd always kept his
boots under the bed, and he'd feel lost if they was anywhere else.
Seems as if when a man lives single long enough, he gets to think there
ain't but one way of doing things and that's his."

"Deacon Wiggins should be adaptable, then," hazarded Agatha. "He's
accommodated himself to the ways of three women."

"There's another thing," Miss Finch continued, ignoring Agatha's
tentative encouragement. "And that's the first wife's relations. I
remember Cousin Caroline used to say she didn't mind his folks dropping
in, and of course she didn't mind her folks, but when his first wife's
folks came to Sunday dinner, or to spend the day, she was on pins and
needles. And she said if ever the bread wasn't as light as usual, or
the roast got overdone, it would be when some of the first Mrs. Flagg's
relations stopped for a meal. She'd been a member of the Methodist
church from the time she was thirteen, Cousin Caroline had, and she was
president of the Women's Foreign Missionary Society, but I've heard
her say with my own ears that she'd rather see the devil coming up the
walk any day, than one of the Sawyer tribe--the first Mrs. Flagg was a
Sawyer. And she had one set of wife's relations to worry her. I--I--if
I took Deacon Wiggins, I'd have three."

"If you married James Doolittle," contributed Agatha cheeringly, "you
wouldn't be troubled in that way."

"No, I wouldn't. But I'm not sure that too little company wouldn't be
worse than too much. Mr. Doolittle ain't ever been what you'd call a
social man, and except for that sister of his who lives out west, he
hasn't any folks to speak of. And as long as I haven't any, I don't
see how between us we could scare up enough mourners for a respectable
funeral."

"Oh, come, Fritz, you're talking of weddings, not funerals.
It certainly is a pity that these lovers of yours have their
advantages--or disadvantages--so evenly balanced. It's like a see-saw,
first one's down and then the other, and that makes it hard to come to
a decision."

Miss Finch took the banter seriously. "Yes, Agatha, it seems a wicked
thing, but I almost wish I'd find out something dreadful about one or
the other, like drinking or Sabbath-breaking, and then I'd know what
to do. But this weighing things and trying to make up my mind is just
wearing me out. Agatha, it ain't what I expected. I supposed it would
be an awful pleasant feeling to know that two men wanted you, but the
way it's turned out, I don't believe I ever was so worried in my life."

"Perhaps proposals are like wisdom teeth, Fritz, and the slower they
are coming, the more trouble they make. But don't forget that you
aren't under any obligations to take either of these men. We were
getting along fine before they thought of wanting to marry you, and if
you say no to both of them, you and I will keep Old Maids' Hall and be
happy ever after."

"I don't believe you're likely to remain single," objected Miss Finch
with perfect simplicity. "It's a pity that nice Mr. Warren never
came again. You could have had that man if you'd tried. Look at the
chocolates he sent you, after only seeing you once, and that in your
kitchen clothes."

"If my name must be either Kent or Warren, I'll stay an old maid to the
end of my days."

"I don't see why you don't like the name Warren, Agatha, and I think
Mrs. Ridgeley Warren sounds awfully nice. But you're the one to be
pleased. It's a pity Mr. Forbes is so afflicted. If it wasn't for that
he'd make a grand husband."

"Mr. Forbes' worst affliction at present," pronounced Agatha tartly,
"is being very much in love with an absolutely heartless and generally
despicable young woman named Julia."

"My gracious," lamented Miss Finch. "Nice prospect for him, ain't it?"

"Not so bad as you'd think. She's going to marry another man."

"Oh!" Miss Finch's limp hand came suddenly to life, found Agatha's
fingers and squeezed them. "Maybe he'll get over it," she hinted.

"Maybe." Something in Agatha's tone suggested she was smiling.

"And then if he'd get his eyesight back, the way he expects to--"

"Then he'd have to be introduced to me all over again. You know he
thinks I'm a kittenish old lady of seventy."

"If he doesn't like you better when he finds you're not quite twenty,
he's different from most men, that's all." There was a new authority
in Miss Finch's pronouncement. She spoke as one who knew the sex, to
whom its little idiosyncrasies were an open book. And hardly less
significant than the change in herself was the fact that Agatha
accepted her altered attitude without surprise.

At the same time the girl's impulsive kiss on her old friend's
tear-stained cheek was irrelevantly tender. "I must go back to bed,"
said Agatha. "It'll soon be time to get up. And don't worry over those
adorers of yours. It'll do them good to be kept waiting. Men--most
men--need to have the conceit taken out of them."

Though she paused in the doorway to charge Miss Finch to go to sleep
immediately, she did not act on her own counsel. Instead she ensconsed
herself on the broad sill of the east window and swinging her dangling
bare feet, watched the face of the sky slowly brighten, flushing pink
at last, like the cheek of a girl. Overhead little rosy clouds floated,
like cherubs, listening to the chorus of bird song which grew in volume
moment by moment.

Another day was beginning, a good day, Agatha was ready to believe. For
though between herself and her heart's desire a tortuous deception lay,
to be explained and forgiven, the prospect no longer seemed hopeless.
It was an eminently satisfactory world, Agatha decided, with Julia out
of the running.



CHAPTER XV

UNDERNEATH THE BOUGH


The kind-hearted Miss Kent had decreed a holiday for Howard. With
characteristic thoughtfulness she had volunteered to take Forbes off
his hands, and suggested they fill in the time by a long walk with
a picnic lunch in some shady place, dinner to be postponed until a
convenient hour after their return. Howard showed hilarious approval of
the plan, and Forbes aroused himself from his melancholy abstraction
sufficiently to agree, whereupon Agatha fell to making sandwiches,
giving directions to Phemie as she worked.

Nature in the raw did not appeal to Miss Finch. She hated long
walks. She hated sitting on the grass; while sandwiches, without
an accompanying cup of tea, were as ashes to her taste. The others
accepted her excuses with fortitude, and left her at home to see that
Phemie did not set the house afire, and to grope wearily toward a
solution of her vexing problem. Howard, having stuffed his pockets
with a generous proportion of the sandwiches, shouldered his fishing
rod and departed to make the most of his holiday. And while the
fragrant freshness of the night still lingered in the air, Forbes and
Agatha set out in the direction of the woods.

The serene confidence of her morning vigil still enfolded Agatha. She
walked as if keeping time to music, inaudible to all ears but her
own. Forbes had insisted on carrying the basket of lunch which also
contained a book or two, in case their mood should take a literary
turn. Agatha kept fast hold of his arm, the better to steer his steps,
and he thought there was a hint of friendliness in the firm clasp. The
lonely and unhappy man felt a disproportionate sense of gratitude.

They walked and rested, strolled on and rested again. Neither was
inclined to talk. Forbes had plenty to occupy his thoughts, and Agatha,
too, was reflective. She realized that the time was at hand when she
must confess to Forbes the deception she had practised on him, or else
allow him to go out of her life altogether. Neither alternative was
agreeable, but the latter was unthinkable.

A scheme occurred to her so in harmony with her native audacity that
she dallied with it lovingly, before reluctantly renouncing it as
impracticable. She could tell Forbes that she expected a visit from her
grand-niece, Agatha Kent, and prejudice him in favor of the newcomer
by assuring him of the extraordinary likeness existing between the
twentieth-century Agatha and her girlhood self. After the new Agatha's
arrival, she could leave him more and more to the society of the
younger woman, withdrawing by degrees into the background until her
sudden demise would hardly shock him, though he would naturally feel
more or less responsible for consoling her namesake and heir. Agatha's
final rejection of the plan was due less to doubt of her ability to
act the dual rôle, or to manage the embarrassing details of her own
interment, than to the realization that if her intimacy with Forbes
was to continue, it must be established on a foundation of absolute
truth. This deception on which she had entered so light-heartedly,
had its sole excuse in the impermanence of their relationship. Before
their friendship could become real there must be perfect understanding
between them.

They ate their sandwiches shortly after noon, washing them down with
deliciously cool water from a convenient spring. The day had grown warm
and very still. "It feels as if a thunder-storm might be brewing,"
Forbes remarked, breaking one of the periods of friendly silence.

"I think not," Agatha answered in a dreamy voice. "Don't you love this
stillness here in the shade? It's perfect, perfect!"

 "'A book of verses underneath the bough,
 A loaf of bread, a jug of wine--and thou,'"

quoted Forbes inevitably. He was laughing but the lines stirred her,
and to disguise the fact she spoke nonchalantly.

"There _is_ a book of poems in the basket, but I don't care for reading
to-day, do you? It's one of the times when you feel everything that has
ever been written and more too. You simply want to sit and think how
wonderful it is to be alive."

"By jove, it's you that's wonderful," Forbes exclaimed. "That
sensitiveness wears off with most people long before they're my age, to
say nothing of yours. But you feel the thrill of life and the mystery
and the adventure, as if you were a girl."

"Yes," Agatha acquiesced, "I do."

"I'd have known it without your telling me. It's been a continual
marvel all through our acquaintance, that ardent freshness of yours.
It's confirmed my faith in immortality."

Agatha had no answer ready. He groped for her hand and took possession
of it with becoming masterfulness.

"I've got something to say to you, something very important. I've meant
to say it for an age, but I've been too much of a coward to risk a no."

Agatha was obliged to remind herself that she was almost seventy years
of age. Otherwise she might have suspected she was listening to a
proposal.

"Before I can explain my plan, I want to ask you something. Aren't you
ever lonely here in winter?"

The question was less formidable than she had anticipated. Her quick
assent showed relief.

"And aren't you going to miss me a little when I go back to the city?"

"Of course I shall," she said faintly, and instinctively tried to
withdraw her hand. He tightened his hold, laughing.

"Please don't take it away. It does me good, and I'm sure it can't do
you any harm. Now you've given me just the encouragement I needed. If
you're lonely here, and if you're going to miss me, why shouldn't you
and I set up housekeeping together?"

"I--I don't understand." Again Agatha steadied herself with the
recollection of her three-score years and seven.

"I'm afraid you've spoiled me," Forbes continued with sudden
seriousness. "I've grown shamefully dependent on you. It isn't
altogether or chiefly that you've looked after my physical comfort
so wonderfully, though, of course, that counts. But you've been so
interested in all that concerns me, so sympathetic, such a good pal--"
He broke off, apparently at a loss for words. "You're as bracing as an
October breeze," he said. "God knows what I should have done without
you, this damnable summer."

The thought crossed her mind that this was her opportunity. Now that
they were alone, now that he had acknowledged his indebtedness, she
could safely throw herself upon his mercy. Her lips parted for her
confession, and an overmastering cowardly fear paralyzed the organs
of speech. Suppose he refused to forgive her. Then he would go away
and she would never see him again. She must make herself still more
indispensable. She must foster that feeling of dependence before she
risked self-accusation.

"Of course I must be in town next winter," Forbes went on. "Why
shouldn't I take a furnished apartment and have you as a sort of mother
confessor? We can get some good servants so you will be relieved of all
responsibility as far as the establishment is concerned, and your sole
duty will be to keep me content with life. How does that appeal to you?"

Agatha heard herself faltering something about Miss Finch.

"Oh, we'll find a place for Miss Finch," Forbes said tolerantly. "I
took it for granted Miss Finch would come along, just as I assumed that
your shadow would accompany you."

"It may be that Zaida will be married by fall," exclaimed Agatha,
seizing the opportunity to postpone the necessity of answering him.
She would not have risked the story on Warren, but she trusted Forbes
to understand that even while her voice broke with uncontrollable
laughter, she was not holding her old friend up to ridicule. As
she described Miss Finch's singular quandary, Forbes joined in her
laughter, more spontaneously than for many weeks, though he made no
effort to conceal his amazement.

"Miss Finch! I begin to feel that I haven't done justice to the lady's
charms. She has impressed me as colorless, not faded, you know, but
colorless from the start."

"It's well we don't all see alike," Agatha said demurely, though a
little startled by his perspicacity.

His next remark took her by surprise. "It's a thousand pities you never
married."

Her impertinent retort that there was still time for that, was checked
before it left her lips, and replaced by the less hazardous rejoinder,
"In that case, probably I shouldn't be sitting here with you."

"True. But my good luck has meant loss to so many. You would have been
an incomparable mother. It's a shame you didn't have a dozen children.
Do you know I've never in my life felt such a sense of being mothered
as I have since I came to Oak Knoll. My own mother was an invalid when
I first remember her."

A little confused, but gallantly striving to live up to her maternal
rôle, Agatha patted his arm with her disengaged hand. He showed his
filial appreciation by kissing the other.

"It wasn't my father's fault, anyway, that you didn't fulfil your
destiny. He took me into his confidence the last few months of his
life, not in any formal way, you understand, just a word dropped here
and there. He was the tenderest of husbands to my mother, but at the
last of his life, his thoughts were all with his first love." He turned
toward her with a gesture plainly interrogative. "He must have been
rather an attractive young fellow."

"He was." Agatha spoke with conviction.

"And still you turned him down. I suppose it would be presumptuous to
hazard a guess that there was another man."

"Yes, I think it would be rather presumptuous," Agatha said
breathlessly. "Anyway, it's foolish, dragging up old love-affairs. 'Let
the dead past bury its dead,' you know, though you modern young folks
don't hold Longfellow in such esteem as my generation did."

"I was only thinking that if there was a man who might have married you
and didn't, he's probably putting in his time in the next world cursing
his luck. But you're not going to be as hard on the son as you were on
the father, are you?"

"I--I--do you mean--"

"You're not going to blast all my hopes by saying no. How am I going to
get along without you; tell me that?"

"You must give me a little time to think," Agatha protested faintly.
She had vowed that morning to avoid all references in the future
to her advanced age, but the habit of acting a part was too strong
to be overcome by a single resolution. She heard herself continuing
mechanically, "Old people don't like to be hurried into important
decisions. Leaving the home of so many years and going away with a
young man may seem a very little thing to you, but to me it's a real
adventure."

"Take all the time you want for reflection," he conceded generously.
"Only understand, you must end by saying yes!"

"You might change your mind and not want me," Agatha said. The
playfulness oozed out of her tone as she voiced her haunting dread.
"You might find out something about me, some trait you had never
suspected. I might be any number of awful things--deceitful, for
instance." Again the impulse to confession took her by the throat.
Again she fought it off almost with terror. It was too soon. She was
not ready. She did not know what to say, and moreover the moment was
too sweet to spoil.

Forbes laughed tolerantly. "Oh, I'll take the risk. Shall we shake
hands on the bargain?"

He was amused by the fervor of her refusal, but his instinct warned
him he was carrying his teasing too far. He had a strong conviction
that she would end by accepting his proposition, but nothing would be
gained by hurrying her to a decision. Though in most things she was
strangely younger than her years, her age manifested itself in her
reluctance to change the established order. He congratulated himself
on broaching the subject early enough to give her time for accustoming
herself to the idea.

A comfortable silence fell between them. Forbes stretched himself on
the pine needles, and presently dropped off to sleep. He had held
to her hand throughout their talk with seeming playfulness, though
perhaps underneath was the instinct of the blind man to establish a
link between himself and his kind, to touch what he can not see. In
his sleep he moved nearer the imprisoned hand, and lay with his cheek
touching it. And though her arm grew very tired from staying in one
position so long, passing through the various stages from prickles to
excruciating pain, and finally to a numbness which made her wonder
if she could ever use it again, Agatha did not move. Indeed as she
sat listening to his quiet breathing, feeling through the torture of
her cramped muscles the touch of his cheek against her hand, her only
quarrel with the hour was that it could not last.



CHAPTER XVI

MISS FINCH FOLLOWS A CLASSIC EXAMPLE


Zaida Finch was not ill-pleased at the prospect of a day to herself.
Agatha's personality was distracting. It was next to impossible to
concentrate your thoughts on your own affairs, however urgent the need,
when Agatha was darting about like a bright-plumaged bird, saying
things that interested you, even though you frequently found them
shocking. "She's a dear girl," Miss Finch reflected, "but upsetting;
and I need quiet."

She seated herself upon the broad porch, with the inevitable mending,
and wearily began weighing the advantages of one suitor against those
of his rival. There was the matter of health to be considered, an
important factor in reaching a decision. Zaida remembered a spinster of
forty married to a man considerably her senior, who had been a bride
three weeks to a day when the bridegroom was smitten with paralysis.

"And poor Linda was nothing but a sick-nurse from that on," mused Miss
Finch. "He must have lasted a good twenty years. I never was much of a
hand in the sick-room. Nursing would wear me out in no time."

But though caution sharpened her natural acuteness, Miss Finch was
unable to award to either of the gentlemen who had honored her, any
advantage over the other in the matter of health. She could not
remember that Deacon Wiggins had ever been ill, though sickness and
death had been familiar guests in his household. James Doolittle
frequently walked with a limp due to rheumatic trouble, but James came
from long-lived stock, and gave a reassuring impression of toughness.
As far as human judgment could play the prophet, she would not be
called on to act as nurse to either aspirant, at least for a number of
years.

Miss Finch's mending suffered. She found it difficult to employ her
brain and her fingers in synchronous activities, and as selecting a
husband naturally took precedence over stopping the holes in Howard's
socks, she sat much of the morning with her hands lying idle in her
lap, her countenance expressing a concentration almost tragic. By noon
she was fairly limp from the strain and she went to the kitchen to ask
Phemie for a cup of tea.

The sound of wheels recalled her to the porch before her modest
luncheon was disposed of. Her first apprehension that either the
deacon or James Doolittle was coming to insist on an immediate answer,
vanished as she caught sight of two unmistakably feminine figures on
the rear seat of the rickety vehicle approaching. But her feeling of
reassurance was of brief duration. Almost immediately the conviction
seized her that the women were strangers.

Miss Finch stood quaking. Her constitutional shyness had been so
cultivated by a lifetime of keeping herself in the background that
the prospect of an interview with the unknown women presented itself
as an ordeal. It was probable, Miss Finch reflected, that they were
city people looking for board. In that case it was only necessary to
tell them that they did not wish any additional boarders, and they
would have no alternative but to go away. Nevertheless she wished
with illogical heartiness that Agatha were at home to assume the
responsibility of the interview.

The creaking carryall came to a halt in front of the house. Miss Finch
saw that of the two passengers, one was young and one elderly, while
both were smartly dressed and formidable. It was the older woman who
addressed her, eying her disapprovingly through her lorgnette, and
speaking in a tone of incredulity that somehow was offensive.

"My good woman, kindly tell me whether this is Oak Knoll."

"Yes, it is," said Miss Finch, reduced by the lorgnette to abject
helplessness.

The driver growled something from the front seat. Miss Finch understood
him to say, "Next time maybe you'll believe me."

"And is Mr. Forbes, Mr. Burton Forbes, spending the summer here?" The
incredulity was as marked as before and as disagreeable.

"Yes'm," replied Miss Finch faintly. "He is."

The driver growled again. The substance of his remark, as far as Miss
Finch could grasp it in her confusion, seemed to be, "What did I tell
you?"

But it mattered little to Miss Finch what the driver had to say. A
deplorable certainty absorbed her. The women were preparing to alight.
There was a trifling delay, owing to the fact they seemed to expect
the driver to assist them, while he assured them that he did not dare
to leave his horses. As the dejected steeds stood with hanging heads,
apparently resigned to the prospect of dying in their traces, the
indignation of the two passengers was amply justified.

They were out at last, and while the elderly lady haughtily paid the
driver, Miss Finch's distended eyes were taking a rapid inventory of
the younger. She was extremely handsome, Miss Finch saw, tall and
slender and tremendously striking in her black and white costume.
She stood looking about her with an evident disdain which the
little spinster might have resented, had she not been chilled by an
indefinable fear.

When the beautiful stranger spoke, her remark was a complete surprise.
"Miss Kent, I suppose."

Zaida Finch became aware of an inexplicable hostility in the other's
manner, of an arrogance that bordered on insolence. She found she was
being scrutinized contemptuously. The little drab nonentity felt in her
veins an unprecedented stirring of resentment.

"No, I'm not," she said with a flatness that seemed deliberately
contradictive. "I'm Miss Finch."

"Be so kind as to call Miss Kent."

"She's out, I'm sorry to say," replied Miss Finch, and her regret was
heart-felt. If only Agatha were on hand to give back this presumptuous
girl stare for stare, to inquire her errand, in the chilling tone
of which Agatha knew the secret, and finally to send her about her
business.

"Call Mr. Forbes, then."

"Mr. Forbes is out, too," Miss Finch explained, and a little chill ran
down her spine. She had forgotten how imperative it was that Agatha
should not encounter any of Forbes' friends. If their unwelcome guests
lingered, it would be necessary for Agatha to become Hephzibah again
with all the inconveniences attendant on that incarnation. "I've got to
get rid of 'em somehow," thought Miss Kent distractedly.

But apparently for the younger of the two strangers, Miss Finch had
ceased to exist. She turned to her companion impatiently. "It's
dreadfully boring, Aunt Estelle, but Burton is out at present. We'll
have to sit on the porch and wait. Fortunately it is shady."

"Yes, it seems to be _shady_," admitted Aunt Estelle, with an emphasis
indicating that as far as the porch was concerned, she could make
no further concessions. She climbed the steps looking about her with
multiplying evidences of disquiet. "Ask her when Burton will be back,"
she enjoined, exactly as if Miss Finch had spoken a foreign tongue, and
could be addressed only through an interpreter.

Miss Finch did not wait to have the inquiry translated. "I don't know
_when_ he'll be back," she said quickly. "Probably he'll be gone all
day."

"He'll return for luncheon, I suppose," said Aunt Estelle, grudgingly
acknowledging Miss Finch's ability to speak English, but apparently
liking her no better on that account.

"No, he won't," declared Miss Finch, with unaccustomed positiveness.
"They took sandwiches."

The two women exchanged glances. "Who is with Mr. Forbes?" asked the
younger. Her manner implied her right to know.

"Ag--well, Miss Kent went with him." And to herself Miss Finch added
wildly, "I can't have a lie on my conscience, even for Agatha."

"Who else was in the party, please?" The young woman in black and white
had become a judge, and Miss Finch, the prisoner at the bar.

"There wasn't anybody else," gasped Miss Finch, with every indication
of uttering a deliberate and premeditated falsehood.

"Where were they going?"

"I don't know exactly. They were going for a picnic somewhere, but I
didn't hear 'em say where. I don't know as they knew themselves."

The judicial sternness became more marked as the prisoner's
embarrassment increased. "You mean that Mr. Forbes and Miss Kent have
gone off for the day with--sandwiches?" Something in her inflection
made the mention of sandwiches the crowning insult to her intelligence.

"Yes," faltered Miss Finch guiltily. "They often take long walks, and
carry a picnic lunch."

The older lady spoke with asperity. "It's a preposterous situation. I'm
sorry to remind you, Julia, that I said at the start it would be better
to telegraph."

Miss Finch started violently. She recalled Agatha's confidential
assurance that Forbes was in love with a despicable young woman named
Julia, but that the aforesaid Julia was to marry another man. Yet here
she was, undeniably handsome, terrifyingly elegant, and worst of all,
with no apparent doubt as to her right to be demanding the immediate
producing of Mr. Forbes.

The two women had seated themselves, Aunt Estelle ostentatiously
dusting the rocker she trusted with her ample person. Miss Finch
proffered a belated and reluctant hospitality.

"If you're thinking of sitting here long, I'll see about getting you
something to eat."

Julia brushed the offer aside without thanks. "We shall wait for Mr.
Forbes."

"It is really absurd, you know," Aunt Estelle contributed, "for us to
sit waiting indefinitely. Burton must be somewhere about. A blind man
and an old woman can not possibly walk very far. Why are they not sent
for?"

As her inquiry was addressed to Julia, Julia passed it on to Miss
Finch, her extremely frigid tone indicating that Miss Finch should have
thought of that herself.

"There's nobody to send except the hired girl," Miss Finch explained
despairingly. "And she never was known to find anything, even if it was
right under her nose. If only Howard--"

Miss Finch checked herself abruptly. A thought had flashed across her
mind so dazzling in its brilliancy she could hardly believe herself
capable of originating it. Indeed, the probability is that she had not
done so, but that some extravagant fancy of Agatha's, falling like seed
into her subconsciousness, had lain there dormant till the emergency
brought it to swift germination. Zaida Finch had never heard of Victor
Hugo's saintly nun, crowning a lifetime of sanctity by a devout and
holy lie, but unconsciously she was inspired to emulate her example.

With Miss Finch veracity was almost a mania. She was one of the
tiresome people who are continually suspecting themselves of
exaggeration or of misrepresentation of something absolutely without
importance, and then bore their associates by insisting on their
attention while they painstakingly correct their statements. Yet now
she forgot her habitual dread of falsehood. If a lie were necessary to
save Agatha, lie she must.

She resumed her interrupted sentence, pale but resolute. "If only
Howard was well, he could look for 'em. He could find 'em if anybody
could. But it'll be a good while before he does much running around, I
guess."

The two visitors regarded her stonily. In her simplicity she had
assumed their cooperation to the extent of a question or two. They
would surely ask her who Howard was, or why he was incapacitated. But
apparently these matters did not interest them in the slightest degree.
It was necessary for Miss Finch to continue her career of mendacity
unaided by so much as the lifting of an interrogative eye-brow.

Miss Finch rose to the occasion. "He's sick, you know," she confided to
the two pairs of indifferent ears. "High fever, and considerable of a
rash--if you'd call it a rash."

Aunt Estelle showed a slight uneasiness. "You've consulted a physician,
I suppose."

"We're trying a kind of mental cure first," replied Miss Finch as
glibly as if she had practised perjury from her childhood. "And then if
that don't work, Ag--Miss Kent is going to call in the doctor. But she
don't like to do it till she has to, for it would be awful inconvenient
to be quarantined."

"Quarantined," exclaimed Aunt Estelle with fresh evidences of
perturbation. "Have you any reason to think that it may be contagious?"

"Most of these rashy diseases are," Miss Finch replied. And though
there was no malice in her composition, she was conscious of relishing
Aunt Estelle's air of agitation. "I'm hoping it's nothing worse than
scarlet fever, though there's been a good many cases of smallpox around
here lately. And I don't know that Howard's ever been vaccinated."

Aunt Estelle rose from her chair with a little cry. In her palpitating
pallor she reminded Miss Finch irresistibly of blanc-mange.

"Smallpox, Julia," she exclaimed. "Do you hear what the woman
says--smallpox! Even if we escape with our lives, one's complexion--oh,
my God! Why did I ever listen to this mad idea of yours!"

Julia's composure was in refreshing contrast to her aunt's excitement.
She rose, it is true, but only to advance to the older woman's side and
whisper in her ear. And having whispered, she calmly resumed her seat,
and looked away toward the hills, apparently intensely interested in
the scenery.

Aunt Estelle stood irresolute. "Do you really think so?"

"I'm absolutely sure of it," said Julia.

"I think I noticed a little wildness in the eye myself," Aunt Estelle
conceded, with a return of her earlier conviction of Miss Finch's
inability to understand English.

"Unmistakable," opined Julia.

Miss Finch looked blankly from one to the other and hope was at low
ebb. They were going to stay. She had thrilled with childlike pride
at the discovery of her own inventiveness, culpable though it might
be. Complacency had whispered that Agatha herself could not have done
better. And now she realized that her effort had failed. She had
sacrificed her conscience to friendship, and the sacrifice had been in
vain. Though not so quick-witted as many another, she had no difficulty
in recognizing the conclusion these strangers had reached. To herself
she said, "They think I'm crazy."

Miss Finch was not at the end of her resources. Her lapse from the path
of rectitude had proved strangely stimulating to the imagination. She
meant to get rid of these women before Agatha returned. Agatha would
be equal to the emergency provided she were not taken by surprise. If
Julia and her aunt were not afraid of smallpox, it was possible that
they might be afraid of a crazy woman who showed signs of becoming
violent.

"G-r-r-r-r--" said Miss Finch menacingly. Aunt Estelle jumped and
took another chair. For the first time in her life, Miss Finch felt
herself at no disadvantage because of her insignificant proportions.
"G-r-r-r-r-r--" she said again.

"Julia," exclaimed Aunt Estelle nervously, "do you really think it's
safe--"

The intrepidity of the modern young woman passes comprehension.
"Harmless, I imagine," Julia said with nonchalance. "Otherwise Burton
would hardly have remained."

"Why he should have remained in this place under any circumstances,"
declared Aunt Estelle, "passes my comprehension."

"There must be some reason we know nothing about. Burton will
explain." Something in Julia's tone implied that Forbes would not find
explanations altogether easy. She added with evident relief, "Here he
comes now."

"Thank heaven!" cried Aunt Estelle piously.

Miss Finch looked wildly in the direction of Julia's steadfast gaze.
All was over. Arm in arm across the grass, so absorbed in each other
that the girl was as blind as the man to the audience on the porch,
came Agatha and Forbes.



CHAPTER XVII

THE DAY OF JUDGMENT


Forbes woke refreshed from his sylvan nap, and sat for a little
discoursing on the invigorating effect of contact with mother earth,
while Agatha, by drastic massage, restored the circulation to her
temporarily paralyzed arm. The sun had dipped but little toward the
western horizon when they turned their faces homeward, and they walked
slowly. Agatha exulted in heat. A temperature of ninety stimulated her
both physically and mentally. But Forbes found the warmth of the day
relaxing, and she set the pace with that fact in mind.

Toward the last of their long leisurely walk, Forbes brought up the
subject he had introduced earlier in the day. Though he made no effort
to hurry her to a decision, he sketched entertainingly some of the
diversions she might anticipate, if she accepted his invitation for the
winter. The program was planned with due regard for the infirmities of
age, but Agatha listened raptly.

They were but a few rods from their destination, Forbes talking
earnestly, and Agatha hanging on his words, when some mysterious sixth
sense warned her of danger. She looked ahead and instantly halted.
Forbes felt her figure stiffen against his arm, and instinct told him
she was frightened. "What is the matter?" he cried, sickening with a
new realization of his helplessness.

Agatha did not answer, but as she stared ahead she understood that
doomsday had arrived unheralded. A young woman was tripping toward
them, a handsome young woman, who even without beauty would have
attracted all eyes by the distinction of her dress and bearing. It
could be no other than Julia. The ample lady in the background,
following with a haste that empurpled her complexion, that she might
not be left tête-à-tête with a maniac, failed to attract Agatha's
attention. Julia's graceful figure dominated the landscape.

"What _is_ the matter?" Forbes again demanded. He laid his hand
reassuringly over the fingers trembling upon his arm. And at that
moment a voice subtly reproachful, suggestively tender, spoke his name.
"Burton!"

"Julia!" Forbes shouted. His dear old friend, Miss Kent, and her
mysterious perturbation, were instantly forgotten. He started forward,
remembered that he was blind, stood irresolute, his hands outstretched.
"Julia!" he cried again, this time with entreaty as well as rapture.

Agatha was ready to believe that then and there she had amply atoned
for her sins, past and present. Even the certainty that the hour of
her humiliation was at hand could not hurt worse than the joy ringing
through his voice as he spoke another woman's name. She wondered dully
at her own folly. She had been warned and had not heeded. She had known
all the time of his love for Julia, and yet had foolishly assumed that
since Julia's selfish decision had put her out of his reach, he would
turn to her for consolation. Her pride had not rebelled over taking
what Julia had thrown away. Indeed she had thought very little about
herself. Her one desire was to be light to his blind eyes, balm to his
wounded heart. But her castle of dreams was in ruins, as soon as he
spoke the name she had hated from the first day she had heard it on his
lips.

Julia approached him as swiftly as was consistent with grace, a rather
insolent triumph in the glance she shot over his shoulder toward the
pale girl standing in the background. "Yes, Burton," she said gently,
"it is Julia," and extended both hands.

He caught them ardently and held them fast, his eager face questioning
her dumbly, though he only said, "What a wonderful surprise! How good
of you, how very good of you!"

"My aunt, Mrs. Knox, is with me, Burton," continued Julia, the
pensiveness of her tone flatly contradicted by her air of elation. "I
think you have met Mr. Forbes, Aunt Estelle."

Aunt Estelle, still panting, brought herself into hand-shaking distance
and this formality helped to recall Forbes to the realization that
there were other people in the world besides Julia and himself. He
turned toward Agatha.

"This is a pleasure I have been promising myself," he said. "Julia, I
want you to know my dear friend, Miss Kent. Miss Kent, let me present
Mrs. Knox and Miss Studley."

The blankness of the silence that ensued was as definite as a blow.
Forbes stood awaiting the conventional formula, but his quick ear could
detect only the sound of hurried breathing. Again he turned toward
Agatha, but for the first time she failed him.

"Miss Kent is still here, is she not?" queried Forbes. He remembered
his ideas had been chaotic after discovering Julia's presence. His late
companion might easily have withdrawn without attracting his attention.

For so simple a question, the effect was startling. "Burton," Julia
cried, her voice sharp to the point of shrillness, "what are you
talking about?"

Aunt Estelle caught her sleeve. "Can't you understand, Julia?" she
hissed. "This place is a private asylum. That crazy old creature on the
porch, and now him. It's perfectly plain. Let us go away at once."

Forbes caught most of this sibilant outburst. He turned white with
anger. "Miss Kent?" he pleaded, and Agatha pulled herself together. Her
voice was steady if slightly unnatural, as she answered, "Yes, I am
here."

Forbes tried to laugh. The consciousness of being enveloped in baffling
mystery made his blindness doubly intolerable. There was a bewilderment
in his voice that wrung Agatha's heart.

"This is what I have been hoping for all summer. You know how often
I've wished you and Miss Studley might know each other."

"Burton," Julia screamed, "who and what is this person?"

The contempt in her tone, even more than her disdainful phrasing,
brought the blood racing to his forehead. "Julia!" He seemed to defy
her to go on. "If you have read my letters at all," he said in a
vibrant voice, "you know both who Miss Kent is and how much I am in her
debt."

"Miss Kent! Your father's friend!"

"And mine as well, Julia." There was no ecstatic tenderness now in his
use of her name, but indignant sternness.

"Burton, either you are insane or the woman is an impostor. She is not
old. She is young, hardly more than a girl."

Forbes attempted to reply, but for a moment no words came. He put his
hand to his forehead with a confused gesture. "I have been off in the
woods with Miss Kent all day," he stammered. "I supposed--I had not
noticed--" Again he turned in Agatha's direction. "Who are you, please?"

There was no trace of emotion in her composed answer. "I am Agatha
Kent."

"Do you dare to say," shrieked Julia, "that you were the friend of Mr.
Forbes' father?"

"I never saw Mr. Forbes' father."

Forbes took a step ahead, then halted, and stood with his feet a little
apart, like one who balances himself on the deck of a heaving ship in a
high sea. "But where," he stammered, "where is the other Miss Kent?"

"There is no other. My Great-aunt Agatha, for whom I was named, died
twelve years ago."

There was a momentary palpitating silence which Julia was the first to
break.

"And you mean," she arraigned her, "that all this summer you have been
a deliberate impostor, palming yourself off on Mr. Forbes as an old
woman, allowing him to think--oh, it's too shameful. I can't believe
any girl would be so base."

"It is quite true, nevertheless," Agatha assured her gently. Her steady
eyes met Julia's, and even that intrepid young woman drew back a step.
Her momentary shrinking was not unreasonable for could concentrated
hate smite like a lightning bolt, her life would have been measured by
seconds.

Instinct taught Julia how to repay that level look by the deadliest
hurt. She turned on Forbes furiously. "Do you mean to tell me that you
have been the victim of a hoax all summer, that this girl has passed
herself off on you for an old woman? But, no, it isn't possible. You've
contrived this outrageous story between you to cover up something
disgraceful. You couldn't have been such a dupe as you pretend. It's
incredible!"

Forbes' color came and went during this attack. "It seems incredible,"
he owned when she gave him opportunity. "I don't blame you for
questioning the truth of such a story. I can only remind you that it is
easy to deceive a blind man."

Something in Agatha's stony whiteness convinced Julia that she had made
no mistake in her choice of retribution. She gave the screws another
turn.

"You mean for me to believe, Burton, that you've been only the gullible
victim of a swindle, that this impostor has tricked you successfully
all these months?"

There was a rather long silence. "Yes," said Forbes tonelessly, "that
is what I mean."

Julia's first sense of being at a disadvantage had passed. She was
thoroughly enjoying herself.

"I begin to understand your strange letter," she said, addressing
Agatha. "Your letter of congratulation, you know. I suppose you are the
young woman to whom you referred, the one with whom Mr. Forbes had
spent so much time, you no doubt remember."

There was such malicious satisfaction in her tone that Forbes turned as
if to interfere. Then his uplifted arm dropped rather heavily to his
side.

"You'll laugh when I tell you, Burton," exclaimed Julia, setting him
the example by laughing herself, most unpleasantly. "But she insinuated
in this letter that you might marry her. That is at the bottom of this
outrageous plot. She actually thought she could compromise you in some
dreadful way and force you to marry her. Shocking as it is, one can't
help being amused."

Forbes' only answer was again to lift his hand to his head. It was
Agatha who spoke. Unmasked adventuress as she was, her dignity was in
rather agreeable contrast to Julia's vindictive shrillness.

"It is hardly necessary to trouble Mr. Forbes with any further
details," she said, "since, thanks to you, my plot against his peace
has been exposed. I suppose you will want to take him away as soon as
possible."

"Oh, at once." Julia showed signs of becoming hysterical. "The very
first train. I feel as if I couldn't breathe in this atmosphere of
deceit."

"I'm afraid there is no train before five o'clock, but I'll have the
carriage ready in plenty of time. And now, if you will excuse me, I
shall see about getting you some luncheon."

"Luncheon! Good heavens, I couldn't eat a mouthful. It would choke me."

Mrs. Knox seconded her niece admirably. "It would not be safe, Julia. A
person capable of all this would not hesitate to poison our food."

Agatha accepted this tribute without comment. "Will you pack Mr.
Forbes' things yourself?" she said, addressing Julia.

Again Mrs. Knox intervened. "Julia, I forbid you to go into that house,
with this girl, and that dreadful, crazy creature--"

Forbes interrupted with signs of irritation. "You said that once
before. There is no insane woman here."

"I am afraid you are not a very good judge of what _is_ or is _not_
here, Mr. Forbes," replied Aunt Estelle, scoring again. "We had a
most unpleasant encounter with a woman clearly insane. She positively
gibbered."

"Yes, Burton," Julia cried with shrewish enjoyment, "you have been made
a laughing-stock all summer, poor dear. You've kept writing about this
fine old place. I wish you could see it. It's simply in the last stages
of dilapidation."

"It's ready to fall to pieces," corroborated Aunt Estelle. "I didn't
venture inside, but the glimpses of the interior I got from the window
showed that everything was fairly moth-eaten."

"Yes," Agatha admitted quietly. "We are very poor, so poor that a
blind boarder seemed providential. Won't you sit on the porch till the
carriage is ready?" she added politely. "I'm sure Mr. Forbes is tired
after his long walk."

"Oh, please," protested Julia, her self-control shaken by the other's
calm, "please drop this pretext of being so interested in Mr. Forbes'
welfare. After the fraud you have practised on him all summer you can
hardly expect him to believe anything you say."

"Oh, no," said Agatha. "I don't expect that for a moment. And now if
you're sure you won't eat a little luncheon, I'll bid you all good
afternoon." She went across the grass to the house, carrying herself
with her chin high, moving deliberately. No one could have guessed
the fact of which she was so certain, that during the encounter she
had ceased to be a girl, that she had leaped without any intervening
stages of maturity and middle life, straight to old age, that dreadful
old age, beyond hope or joy, the age that is death in life. Agatha
remembered wonderingly that once the mere flicker of sunshine through
leaves, the mere fragrance of a flower, had a magic to quicken her
pulses.

A little after three the carryall appeared. Howard was driving, and
Forbes' suit-case and other impedimenta lay on the seat beside him. As
he helped his passengers in, he explained that the trunk would be sent
by express next day. This announcement was received in frigid silence
whereupon Howard, too, became sulkily silent and used the whip on the
fat bays with such effect that they covered the five miles between Oak
Knoll and the village station at an unprecedented rate of speed.

Forbes thawed a little when Howard helped him to alight, and stood for
a moment beside him. "Good-by, Mr. Forbes," the boy said huskily. "I'm
awfully sorry you're going."

He put out his hand and after an instant's hesitation Forbes gripped
it. He had grown fond of the boy. "Oh, Howard," he said, his voice
betraying his hurt, "I wouldn't have believed it of you."

He heard Howard gulp and then burst out sobbing. Fortunately for the
boy's pride, the hour was early and the station platform lacked its
customary contingent of loafers.

"We didn't mean anything, Mr. Forbes," Howard choked. "Aggie wanted to
take boarders, so she could send me to school, but when they saw how
old and shabby the house was, they wouldn't come."

"Is she your sister?"

"Kind of one. Her father married my mother. She's better than a
thousand real sisters."

"Burton," said Julia's voice beside them, "I wouldn't encourage the boy
by listening to him. Probably that young woman has coached him in a new
series of lies."

"Aggie never tells lies," Howard challenged her hotly. "This was like
a charade or something. Mr. Forbes thought she was old and so she
pretended to be. We had lots of fun and it didn't do anybody any harm."
He appealed to Forbes. "She took good care of you anyway, didn't she,
Mr. Forbes?"

"Really, Burton," expostulated Julia, "I can not allow this to go on.
These people evidently regard you as fair game. It's dreadful that your
blindness should put you so at the mercy of the unscrupulous, but I
shall see that you are not imposed on while I am with you. Send this
boy away."

"He doesn't need to send me away," Howard exploded indignantly. "I'm
going." He seized Forbes' hand again. "Good-by, Mr. Forbes. Come and
see us some time."

Julia gasped. "Did any one ever imagine such impertinence!" she asked
of high heaven. "Such people seem to be without natural shame. I
suppose they are so accustomed to being found out in falsehood and
fraud that they take it as a matter of course. In the interest of
justice there should be some way of punishing them. Couldn't they be
prosecuted, Burton, for obtaining money under false pretenses?"

Forbes made no reply. Apparently he did not share Julia's lofty
enthusiasm for abstract justice. His air of bewildered dejection
suggested a lost child, rather than a man rescued from a false and
intolerable position by the lady of his heart.



CHAPTER XVIII

WARREN GETS A TIP


Ridgeley Warren had been to the station to bid a friend _bon voyage_.
He presented himself armed with a box of chocolates, the latest novel
and three brand-new witticisms culled from a roof-garden program the
previous evening. The pretty girl had accepted his offerings with
marked graciousness and had laughed convulsively at each of the jokes,
thereby intensifying Warren's habitual sense of being on good terms
with himself and all the world. His spirits unclouded by the pang of
parting, he strolled toward the exit, trying to decide where to dine,
when his own name reached his ears coupled with a fervent ejaculation,
"Mr. Warren! Thank heaven!"

Warren spun on his heel to encounter Julia advancing with extended
hand. Julia was not one of Warren's favorites, but her pleasure at the
sight of him was contagious. "Gosh!" he exclaimed agreeably, "this _is_
luck."

It was while shaking hands with Julia that Warren became aware of Mrs.
Knox's imposing figure in the background. And scarcely had he lifted
his hat in recognition of her presence, when his eye fell on Forbes, a
pale and woebegone object, committed to the clumsy guardianship of a
station porter.

Warren turned on Julia blithely. "Don't tell me you've sprung a
surprise on us. Don't say that I should have come with my pockets full
of rice."

"Oh, Mr. Warren, be serious, please." There was gentle reproach in
Julia's uplifted eyes. "It seems really providential meeting you here.
Now you can take charge of Burton till he finds some suitable person to
look after him."

"What's become of the nice little chap who has been on the job all
summer?"

"Oh, Mr. Warren!" Julia's gesture indicated the futility of attempting
immediate explanations. "It's a long, a dreadful story, and it will
take time to make you understand."

"Hm! I'm not usually considered so dense."

"But this isn't like anything else. It's incredible. I can hardly
believe it myself. Let's go to some quiet place where we can have
dinner and talk things over."

"Yes, for heaven's sake, let us have dinner," snapped Mrs. Knox. An
unusually early hour of rising, together with a mid-day fast, had
reduced her to an unwonted state of nervous irritability. Forbes, too,
seemed wrapped in impenetrable gloom. It was not a cheerful party.

Warren's curiosity was aroused. He found a taxi, bundled the dejected
trio inside and gave the driver directions. He was rather shocked to
see how ill Forbes looked on nearer view, but he concealed that emotion
under his usual cloak of levity, and told humorous stories all the way
to their destination, covering the lack of responsiveness on the part
of his audience by roars of appreciative laughter.

The staid hotel which Warren had selected, though yielding to modern
demands sufficiently to institute a roof dining-room, discouraged
such innovations as would be likely to attract the light-minded, and
Warren's party had no difficulty in securing a table. Warren assumed
the prerogative of host and ordered with a lavishness productive of
a marked unbending on the part of Mrs. Knox. Julia, too, was hungry
enough to look forward to a good dinner with unwonted anticipation, and
she smiled on him appreciatively. Only Forbes remained moodily aloof.

It was over the soup that Warren said cheerily, "Well, now, what's it
all about?" He was beginning to realize that something unusual must
have occurred to bring Julia and her aunt to town in August, as well as
to account for Forbes' strange, dispirited silence.

Mrs. Knox immediately protested. "Oh, Mr. Warren, don't spoil a good
meal by bringing up that abominable affair."

"Oh, yes, let it wait, please, Mr. Warren," sighed Julia. "Actually
when one realizes what wickedness there is in the world--deceit and
imposture and things of that sort--it seems fairly heartless to enjoy
one's self."

"Then we'll wait for explanations till dinner is over," Warren
conceded, with undiminished buoyancy. But although he made himself
entertaining in his usual fashion, his mind was busy with the problem
Julia had suggested. Who was the girl hitting, with her talk of deceit
and imposture? She could not refer to Miss Kent, naturally, and Howard
was equally out of the question. Could it be that Hephzibah's existence
had come to her attention? Was it possible that Forbes had been
playing a lone hand and had thereby become involved in an entanglement
from which his betrothed had magnanimously rescued him? The unrelieved
melancholy of Forbes' face and manner rendered this explanation
entirely plausible.

When the coffee was brought on and the men lighted cigarettes, Warren
felt, not unnaturally, that his hungry curiosity had a right to
satisfaction. "Well, I'm as ready to be shocked as I ever shall be," he
said. "Let's hear what has happened. Don't tell me that the staid Miss
Kent was on the point of eloping with old Forbes."

To Warren's surprise, this apparently innocent witticism caused
Forbes to flush darkly. He noticed, too, that Julia's expression lost
something of its pensive sweetness, but even then he was unprepared for
the acidity of the tone with which she answered him.

"There is no Miss Kent."

"Eh?" Warren looked rather stupid.

"Strictly speaking," admitted Julia, "there is a person who calls
herself by that name. But the nice old lady who was Burton's father's
friend has been dead a dozen years."

Warren knocked the ashes from his cigarette with painstaking
deliberation. "Must be a rather lively old ghost," he commented,
striving to live up to his principle of never showing surprise,
"according to all Forbes tells."

"Oh, poor Burton," Julia cried, with a glance of angelic commiseration
in the direction of her grimly silent lover. "Wouldn't you have thought
that Burton's misfortune would have appealed to the better instincts of
the most depraved? But instead, they take advantage of his blindness to
trick him in the most infamous fashion. The person who calls herself
Agatha Kent--I suppose it really is her name, though any one so
absolutely deceitful is as likely to lie about one thing as another--"

"Well?" trumpeted Warren, his strained patience showing itself in the
unnecessary loudness of his challenge.

"Do hush, Mr. Warren, everybody's looking at us. This Kent woman isn't
a nice motherly person. She isn't old at all, not a bit older than I
am."

Warren sucked at his cigarette for a moment and blew the smoke
through his nose. He needed a little time in order to preserve the
imperturbable demeanor on which he prided himself. He looked at Julia
to be sure she was in earnest, looked at Forbes to see if he were not
going to deny this incredible story, and then expressed his feelings by
a low whistle.

"Not a nice motherly person," he repeated inanely. "About as old as you
are."

"She may even be a little younger," Julia admitted generously.

Warren's air of incredulity deepened. He threw the uncommunicative
Forbes a challenging glance.

"Do you mean that Forbes has been spending all his time with her for
the past three months and never suspected that she wasn't an old woman?"

"So he claims." Julia's inflection was decidedly tart.

Forbes made one of his rare contributions to the conversation. "I
wouldn't have believed such a thing possible myself, but blindness
makes one an easy victim."

"Poor Burton!" murmured Julia, melting at once. "To think that any girl
should have the heart to take such advantage of another's misfortune."

"But I can't see what she was getting at," Warren demurred. "I've
heard that occasionally ladies represent themselves as younger than
they really are, and the reason for that seems plain enough. But why
the devil should a young girl want to make herself out an old maid of
seventy?"

"Purely mercenary at the start," Julia opined. "As I understand it,
Burton saw her advertisement for a boarder, and wrote her, supposing
she was his father's old friend. And she decided to pass herself off as
her great-aunt so as to get as much out of Burton as she could."

"That young woman must have plenty of nerve. It's plain she needed the
money, as far as that goes. Place is terribly run-down."

"Oh, shockingly," Mrs. Knox corroborated him, in her deepest tones.
"All the furniture I could see through the windows seemed mere wrecks."

"On its last legs," Warren agreed. He waited for a moment and then
asked casually, "Well, what's the fuss about? What harm did it do?"

The two women uttered a simultaneous ejaculation of horror. "A piece of
barefaced fraud," cried Mrs. Knox.

"She has been getting money under false pretenses," flared Julia. "I
believe she can be arrested like any other swindler, and punished."

Warren shrugged his shoulders. "I can't see where the harm comes in,"
he persisted stubbornly. "She made Forbes comfortable all summer, so
comfortable that now he looks like a baby that's being weaned. She
took his money, but judging from the meals I ate there, she gave him
his money's worth. If she'd been an old party, passing herself off
as a youthful beauty, Forbes would have a right to kick. But under
the circumstances is seems to me you're making a mountain out of a
mole-hill."

Warren's amiable defense of the guilty was not well received. Aunt
Estelle regarded him with open hostility, and Julia seemed pained by
his moral obtuseness. A flicker of interest lighted Forbes' impassive
face and suggested to Warren that his line of argument appealed more
strongly to his masculine listener than to the women. Although he held
no brief for Agatha Kent, he pressed his advantage.

"We don't know, any of us, what we might do if we were up against it.
I've often thought I would commit highway robbery if I were hungry
enough. I'll say this for the girl, anyway: She must be a peach of an
actress. If she could knock around with a man all summer, walk with him
and talk with him and pet him a little, when he was down in the mouth,
and yet never let him suspect that she wasn't old enough to be his
grandmother--"

"Really, Mr. Warren," Julia said with asperity, "I can't see any point
in continuing this conversation. I had hoped you might be able to make
some helpful suggestions regarding Burton, for of course I understand
that you can't be burdened with him for more than a few days. But if
you are going to spend the evening defending that brazen, red-haired--"

"What!" roared Warren. This time he _had_ done it. The head waiter
looked in his direction apprehensively.

Aunt Estelle took the protest from Julia's lips. "Pardon me, Mr.
Warren, but I must remind you that my niece and I dislike to be made
conspicuous by such demonstrations."

Warren ignored the reproof. "What did you call her?" he demanded of
Julia, whose only answer was an offended stare.

"Did you say she was red-haired?"

"I--I did. Though why you should attach any importance to anything so
trivial, I confess I don't understand."

Warren did not attempt to enlighten her. He indicated to the waiter
that he was ready for his check and his manner was offensively
jubilant. "I'm afraid," he said genially, "that you'll have to make
some plan for disposing of old Forbes besides committing him to my
tender mercies. I've just remembered that I'm going out of town in the
morning, early train."

Julia looked startled. "But what is Burton to do, then?"

"Just what he would have done if you hadn't run across me. Though if
you'd like my candid advice--"

"Yes, please," said Julia, and tried to look winning. It did not suit
her that Warren should slip away in this cavalier fashion, leaving
her with a blind man on her hands. She had important plans for the
remainder of the week. Twenty-four hours was all she could possibly
spare for Forbes.

"Then I advise you to marry him offhand. You have taken him away from
one young woman who was devoting herself to making him comfortable. I
should say that the least you could do was to follow her example."

Julia's gasp of rage made Warren think of a cat whose tail has been
trodden on. From across the table Forbes promptly requested him to mind
his own business.

"Just a bit of good advice, old man," Warren soothed him. "Take it or
leave it, as you please. Anything more I can do for you people before I
go?"

A frigid silence indicated that any service he could offer would be
unwelcome, whereupon Warren, having tipped the waiter with a liberality
indicative of a jocund spirit, took his smiling departure, leaving
dejection behind him.

After a talk with the night clerk, it was arranged that Forbes should
remain at the hotel, an adaptable bell-boy agreeing to act as his valet
in the morning. Before Mrs. Knox and Julia took refuge in another
hostelry, the lovers had a moment to themselves.

Julia was in an unpleasant mood. The emphasis Warren had laid on Miss
Kent's histrionic powers had awakened her ready suspicion. As she found
herself alone for a moment with her lover, his look of weary dejection
aroused her resentment.

"It's most extraordinary, Burton," she complained, "that you should
never have suspected her of being younger than she pretended. I could
see that Mr. Warren didn't believe it for a minute."

Forbes replied with perfect conviction that Warren was an ass.

"I should have thought that if you didn't find it out when you were
holding her hands, you would have realized it the moment you took her
in your arms."

"Damnation!" Forbes was goaded beyond endurance. "I never took her in
my arms."

"She said you did," insisted Julia, eying him suspiciously. "In that
preposterous letter she wrote me, you know. She said you often held her
hands and patted them and that sort of thing."

"I did, I admit it. I supposed her a contemporary of my father's, you
remember."

"And she said that once, under rather unusual circumstances, you took
her in your arms."

"An absolute lie!" blazed Forbes. "But of course if you are going to
doubt my word, Julia--"

Julia said no, that she did not doubt him. She added that when a person
had lived a lie for months, one more little falsehood would not mean
much. Then she gave him her hand to kiss, and was annoyed when he only
pressed it and said good night. She had to remind herself that though
there was no one near to witness the act of devotion, Burton could
not know that he was unobserved, and his undemonstrative demeanor was
undoubtedly due to his unwillingness to compromise her.

It was while the adaptable bell-boy was conducting his charge to
his room, that enlightenment came. Forbes gave a convulsive start.
"Damnation!" he exclaimed, for the second time in fifteen minutes.

"Yes, sir, our floor, sir!" The bell-boy eyed him expectantly. He had
an adventurous spirit, though condemned to carry suit-cases and bring
ice-water on request. It looked as if there might be something doing
with a gentleman who jumped so high and swore so roundly in a public
elevator.

Forbes had only realized that the letter Julia had quoted had contained
no falsehood. He understood Warren's excitement over the discovery that
Agatha Kent was red-haired. Agatha and Hephzibah were one and the same.

The circumstances which led to his taking her in his arms were unusual,
indeed. In the close corridors of the city hotel he seemed to smell
again the scent of sun-kissed fields. As the bell-boy gripped his
arm, he felt against his heart the pressure of that lithe young body,
shaken by sobs. His cheek had brushed another, smooth and fragrant. His
pulses had answered the indefinable challenge of youth and beauty. They
thrilled again at the mere memory.

Forbes did not fall asleep till nearly morning. He lay awake, trying to
decide how far the situation was altered by the fact that Agatha Kent
had saved his life.



CHAPTER XIX

THE WORM TURNS


In the hour or two of troubled sleep closing his wakeful night, Forbes
dreamed vividly and woke with Agatha's voice echoing in his ears. He
started up, his lips parted to speak her name, then dropped back upon
his pillows with a sense of desolate loss that tried his powers of
self-control.

So faithfully had his memory reproduced every intonation of the
familiar voice that it had seemed to bring the living woman to his
side. He recognized the maternal note which had appealed to him the
more because of his unmothered boyhood, the undertone of indulgent
humor which was characteristic of the friend on whom he had learned
to lean. Only there was no such friend. Her place had been taken by
a stranger, capable of bewildering changes of identity, Miss Kent,
Hephzibah, and now this newcomer, Agatha, self-confessed impostress
who could, even when unmasked and flouted, preserve the dignity which
is the heritage of race. He found himself thrilled by an inexplicable
pride as he remembered the even voice with which she had answered
Julia's shrillness.

The adaptable bell-boy presented himself in due time and awkwardly
assisted him with his dressing. After visiting the barber, he was
conducted to the hotel dining-room, and here the realization was
brought home to him that for many a month Agatha's tact had stood
between him and embarrassment. She had prepared his food so that he ate
without any especial sense of being at a disadvantage. His fork was
always at hand when he wanted it. His glass of water and his cup of
coffee were magically present to his need. In the hotel dining-room he
heard whispers at his back, and once a sound like smothered laughter,
and he tingled with the shamed consciousness of being a show for
curious eyes. His face burned throughout the meal, and his eating was
largely pretense.

Forbes' engagement with Julia was for ten o'clock. At quarter before
the hour, the bell-boy who had taken him in charge conducted him to a
stiff little parlor on the second floor, and left him after a whispered
explanation to the maid. Time is proverbially slow-footed from the
standpoint of lovers, but as Forbes sat waiting he felt sure that his
impatience did not explain the seemingly endless duration of those
fifteen minutes. The maid came to him at last to ask if there was
anything she could do.

"I'd like to know the time, please."

"Half past eleven, sir."

"Half past eleven," Forbes repeated. Oddly his first emotion was a
feeling of relief that Agatha did not know.

The parlor maid was offering encouragement. "Prob'ly something's
happened to detain the young lady, sir. But I don't believe she'll be
much longer."

"Let us hope not," Forbes replied dryly. The proudest of men, he winced
at the unmistakable sympathy of the woman's tone. It was not fair that
he should be subjected to such humiliation.

Julia arrived upon the stroke of noon, voluble over some undeniable
bargains in blouses. She had stopped at one of the exclusive little
shops, preferred by the knowing to the big emporiums, only intending,
she explained vivaciously, to make one small purchase. But the woman
had kept showing her the loveliest things, and all so reasonable.
There was practically no one in the place, so that it had seemed like
shopping in some strange city. And it was worth coming to town in the
hot weather just to pick up such bargains.

"I'm glad your effort was not thrown quite away," Forbes remarked with
an irony that glanced harmless from Julia's armor.

"Oh, no, Burton, I don't grudge any sacrifice I have made. Getting you
out of the clutches of that harpy was worth it all."

She waited for a suitable expression of gratitude from the gentleman
she had rescued. After a pause which Forbes failed to fill
appropriately, she spoke again, and this time with grave seriousness.

"Now, Burton, it's only two hours before my train leaves and I must
have luncheon, so we'd better lose no time deciding on the wisest
course to take in this affair."

Again Forbes failed to respond. Julia eyed him suspiciously.

"I hope you haven't an idea of passing this outrage over without taking
any action, Burton. It's that sort of laxity that makes criminals."

"Perhaps you have decided on the punishment appropriate to this
particular crime," said Forbes, his voice rich in ironic inflections,
which again passed harmlessly over Julia's head.

"To tell the truth, I have. There's only one point on which these
mercenary people are really susceptible, and that's money. My advice is
to write her that unless she returns every penny you paid her, you will
prosecute her for swindling."

"She might not be able to do that, Julia. I judge from what you all say
that she must be poor."

"Oh, she's evidently that. Everything about the place is
poverty-stricken, and the gown she wore that day was so faded that you
could hardly tell the original color. But I believe she has all that
money put aside, for don't you remember, the boy said she wanted to
send him to school."

"I remember. And you advise me to demand the money she has saved for
his schooling, and ask her to charge up my board for those months to
charity?"

Julia held to her point. "It's the sort of thing she'd feel, because
it's evident there's nothing she wouldn't do for money. I confess I
can't comprehend that temperament. Money means so little to me that I
simply don't understand how it's possible for people to worship it as
they do."

He listened with growing irritation. That this girl who had never
earned a dollar, and had never denied herself anything she wanted,
should assume so superior an attitude, offended his sense of justice.
"Perhaps if you knew more of the value of money," he cut in crisply,
"you might respect it more."

"Oh, I know I'm impractical, Burton. Dad was always making fun of me
for that." The pensiveness of her tone was still evident as she added,
"Perhaps you'd like to have me write the letter before I go."

"What letter?"

"To that woman, of course, threatening to prosecute her unless she
returns the money."

His pause was long enough to give the idea that he was considering her
suggestion. His tone when at length he spoke, implied nothing of the
sort.

"Thank you, Julia. I shall not need your services. And when I write
Miss Kent, I shall enclose a check to cover my board till the first of
November."

He heard her catch her breath. "You mean you are going to pay a premium
for being tricked and deceived?"

"She deceived me and that's not easy for me to forgive. But I'm hardly
ready to sponge my living from a girl who is making a hand-to-hand
fight with poverty."

"Dear, it's dreadful the way you men let your chivalry run away with
you. I suppose if you were on a jury, you couldn't bring yourself to
convict a woman of murder."

"I hardly think Miss Kent's offense can be classed in that category,"
Forbes said stiffly. "I suffered chiefly through the jolt to my sense
of dignity. That's always been a sensitive point with me."

Julia sighed. "I can't bear to have you talk that way, Burton. It's bad
enough for Mr. Warren to make light of falsehood and treachery. But it
seems to me a person capable of that, is capable of anything." She laid
her hand lightly on his. "Trust a woman's intuition, Burton. Let me
write that letter."

Her touch not only left him cold, but roused his antagonism. He felt
an irritated certainty that he was being played upon. "Thank you, but
I have nothing to say to Miss Kent that I can not entrust to a public
stenographer."

She did not take away her hand. "Let's not talk of that dreadful woman
any more," she said, in a lowered voice. "Fate has given us this
little hour out of the years, and we mustn't waste it."

Her words brought back something Agatha had said, her scathing scorn
of those who took the easy way, and then held fate accountable. The
remembrance steeled him against the insidious tenderness of her voice.

"You made your choice, Julia, as you had a right to do. And I wish you
every happiness."

The fragrance of a delicate perfume he had always associated with her
enveloped him. He felt the pressure of her body against his arm.

"What a queer, quiet hotel this is, Burton. Right in the heart of the
city and yet we're as much alone as if we were off somewhere in the
woods."

Had she been sensitive, she might have perceived a curious rigidity
in the arm against which she leaned, an ominous tightening of the
obstinately silent lips. Her vanity felt the challenge of his failure
to respond. She flung prudence to the winds. "Burton! Burton!" she
murmured, and whether her emotion was real or assumed, he did not know,
"why don't you kiss me?"

His fastidious recoil was strengthened by the suspicion that she was
attempting by playing on his passion to mold him to her will in the
matter of Agatha's punishment. He moved away a little. "Excuse me," he
said, "I shouldn't dream of taking such a liberty with the fiancée of
Murray Prendergast."

"Oh, don't!" He felt her shudder, and again wondered if it were real,
or a pretense. "All the years ahead belong to him, and just this little
moment is yours and mine."

"I lay no claim even to a moment of your time, Julia. I asked from you
all or nothing."

"Tell me just once that you love me, Burton."

At his continued silence, she drew herself away. "You're different. You
don't care for me as you did."

She waited vainly for him to deny the accusation. Then again she caught
his hand. She might have been a loyal wife, fearing that her husband's
heart was slipping from her grasp and longing to be reassured.
"Burton," she implored, "tell me whether you love me."

"I thank God--no."

She fell back, and he could hear her stormy breathing. Well as he knew
every inflection of her voice, he hardly recognized it when she spoke
again.

"That wretched woman! That creature! She's to blame. She's stolen your
heart from me."

"Don't be a fool." The brutality, foreign as it was to Forbes' training
and temperament, seemed demanded by the occasion. "My heart and all the
rest of me was yours while you chose to keep me. You threw me away like
a worn glove when my trouble came, and looked about for a more fitting
match."

"Burton, you said yourself--"

"I own I made your way easy for you, Julia. I was fool enough to be
satisfied to have you yourself and made no inconvenient demands in the
way of loyalty and truth. And the fate you are so fond of invoking was
kinder to me than I deserved."

"You love her. You love that abandoned--"

"Stop!" he commanded. "Don't dare finish." But he himself went on
talking rapidly. "As far as Miss Kent is concerned, of course I have
made it impossible for her ever to think well of me again, since after
her months of uninterrupted kindness, I could listen to your venomous
attack upon her, and not speak a word in her defense."

"How dare you! How dare you speak like that to me!"

"Whether I love her or not, I don't know. It's too bewildering for me
to be sure. But I know she's the most loyal friend, and the dearest
comrade and the bravest, most unselfish--"

Julia sprang from her place beside him with a cry. His face was toward
her, and at the sound of her voice, an extraordinary thing happened. He
saw her for an instant quite distinctly, though the face he had loved
had undergone as hideous a change as if death and decay had done their
devastating work upon it. Secure in the knowledge of his blindness, she
faced him with the mask thrown aside. He saw her features distorted
by hate, her eyes narrowed malignantly, her lips drawn back from the
teeth. Something Hephzibah Diggs had said in their memorable interview
flashed across his mind. "When she showed herself up for what she was,
you'd ought to have got down on your marrow bones and thanked the Lord."

Darkness shut down over the unwelcome vision. There was a rushing in
his ears so that he heard only faintly Julia's farewell, "I hate you!
Oh, how I hate you!" He leaned back against the cushions, realizing
that he was a sick man, but enveloped in a strange serenity. When next
the parlor maid proffered her services, he sent her to telephone for
his physician. An hour later he was comfortably ensconced in a private
hospital on the outskirts of the city, and sick as he felt, his mood
was increasingly cheerful, for the doctor considered the momentary
return of vision, elusive and disappointing as it had been, most
encouraging.

It was a week before Forbes was equal to dictating a letter to Agatha.
He passed over the peculiar circumstances of their parting, expressed
rather formally his sense of gratitude and enclosed a generous check.
His acknowledgment came with gratifying promptness. But the nurse on
opening the envelope was puzzled.

"It doesn't seem a letter at all, just bits of paper. Why, it looks
like a check, torn into little pieces."

"You can't find the number of the check among the scraps, can you?"
asked Forbes.

The nurse could and did and Forbes' suspicion became certainty. He
turned on his pillow, unreasonably wounded. The Agatha Kent he had
loved and trusted had never been, and this stranger who called herself
by the familiar name had rejected his overture of friendship.



CHAPTER XX

THE DAY AFTER


The day of judgment has its drawbacks, but it is the day after that
really hurts. The first shock numbs. It is when the nipping pain
begins, the remorseless pain too cruel to kill, that the sinner takes
the full measure of his punishment.

On the day of Forbes' departure, Agatha ate her evening meal as usual
and went to bed at eight o'clock. She slept heavily till midnight,
roused and speedily dozed off again, but now to be the victim of
torturing dreams.

Years before a pet dog of Howard's had become old and sickly and
Agatha's father had decided it must be killed. He had attempted to
shoot the animal in its sleep, but his nervousness had caused him to
miss his aim. It had taken three shots to finish the business. Agatha
had come upon the scene just in time to see the look the dying brute
turned on its idolized master, and the incident had stamped itself on
her memory as the supreme tragedy in her experience. She invariably
dreamed of it when feverish and ill. This night she underwent the
familiar agony with a difference. In the grotesque necromancy of the
dream-world, the wounded dog had become Forbes, turning his stricken
gaze upon the friend who had done him to death. She woke in a cold
sweat and did not sleep again.

At four o'clock she was up and cleaning house as the one adequate
antidote for the remorseful thoughts that threatened to wreck her
reason. She worked furiously all the morning, barely stopping to eat.
Miss Finch watched her from a distance, heart-wrung and afraid, but
knowing from experience that at certain crises Agatha was best left
to herself. Howard, with the characteristic masculine reluctance to
witness suffering out of his power to relieve, took his fishing rod and
departed for a day of his favorite sport.

About two o'clock in the afternoon, Ridgeley Warren came strolling
up the driveway between the rows of stately trees which made the
battered old house at the end of the avenue appear an anti-climax,
and so reached her unheralded. Agatha had thrown a braided rug across
the clothes-line and was beating it as if she had a personal spite
against each individual rag. The sun was full on her hair and despite
her menial occupation, she seemed to him a splendid figure, furiously
vital, crowned with light. Excitement whipped up his pulses as he left
the driveway and walked across the grass in her direction, but when
near enough to make his voice heard above the volley of blows, he only
said nonchalantly, "Good afternoon, Hephzibah."

Agatha turned and stood panting. She had been working at high pressure
since daybreak, and close inspection revealed not a masquerading
goddess but a tired, bedraggled girl. Her hair had slipped from the
restraining pins and a wayward coil partly extinguished one eye. Her
fair skin was clouded by successive layers of dirt. A disfiguring
smudge successfully effaced the dimple in her chin. With quickening
admiration Warren realized that this soiled and disheveled apparition
still had a distinct claim to beauty.

"Hard at work, I see, Hephzibah." He stood with his hands in his
pockets, immaculate in his light summer clothing, and as always he
roused her to defiance.

"My name is Kent. Please use it."

"I'm ready to call you anything you please, my dear spitfire. Only
remember that it's not my fault that I've always thought of you as
Hephzibah."

Agatha glared at him. His presence restored her poise. She realized
that as an antidote Warren was better than a thousand years of
house-cleaning.

"I don't know why you should think of me as Hephzibah or anything else.
I don't know why you shouldn't dismiss me from your mind altogether as
I should like to dismiss you."

"Out of the question, Hephzibah, or Miss Agatha Kent, if you like that
better. You see, you interest me."

"I'm sorry I can't return the compliment, but you bore
me--excruciatingly."

"To begin with," Warren explained analytically, "you are the prettiest
girl I know, bar none. And in the second place, I'm inclined to believe
you're the brainiest. If what they told me last night is true, you
ought to make your fortune on the stage."

Agatha regarded him silently and the antagonism died out of her face.
He was almost sorry, for it left her white and wan and rather pitiful.

"You know what a fraud I am, then?" she said wistfully.

"I know you're the cleverest girl of my acquaintance, if you could get
by with a thing like that."

"I suppose he simply despises me." Into Agatha's mind had flashed the
preposterous hope that possibly Warren's tolerant attitude toward her
escapade was shared by the only man who counted.

"Who? Forbes? Why the devil should you care what he thinks? Old Forbes
was always a bit of a prig."

Positive hatred looked out of Agatha's eyes. "Oh, I don't know. I
shouldn't call a man a prig simply because he objected to being tricked
and deceived and lied to. I suppose he has a high enough ideal of women
so that he expects a girl to tell the truth, just as much as if she
were a man. I consider that attitude a compliment, myself."

Warren was somewhat staggered. "Then I suppose I'm insulting you by
thinking you are a darned clever kid, and the rest of them a pack of
fools for making a fuss over nothing."

Agatha left him in doubt on this delicate point. The little hope that
had stirred in her heart had died almost as soon as it was born,
and the resulting anguish seemed out of all proportion to its brief
existence. Forbes did not share Warren's leniency toward her summer's
masquerade. He was one of the fools who condemned her. She looked away
toward the hills and suddenly her face twisted in passionate weeping.

"Don't do that, Hephzibah. For God's sake, don't cry. Can't you let me
help you, little girl? You need a friend I'm sure, and there's nothing
I'd like better than to help you. You've bewitched me, Hephzibah.
I lost my head over you when I thought you were an ignorant little
country girl, murdering the king's English every time you opened your
mouth. And the more I know of you, the more wonderful you seem. I'm
crazy about you."

Agatha's sobs quieted as she listened. When a woman has been humiliated
beyond a certain point, nothing can restore her self-esteem like being
made love to by a personable man. Warren's irreproachable costume, his
good looks, his convincing air of prosperity all helped in her struggle
against intolerable mortification. Yet though she dried her eyes at
his agitated request, and favored him with a faint, watery smile,
she thought of him, if the truth be told, less as a lover than as a
life-preserver.

Warren sat upon the porch and smoked while Agatha made herself
presentable. It took her some time and he was not sorry, for he wanted
a chance to get himself in hand. He had said very much more than he
had intended to say when he bought his ticket that morning, and though
he did not exactly regret his indiscretion, he told himself that he
had better go slow. Twenty-four hours earlier the name Agatha Kent had
suggested to him a benevolent old lady with a double chin, the chin an
entirely gratuitous contribution of his active imagination. Hephzibah
Diggs was a beautiful but deplorably ignorant country girl who had got
herself into trouble, like many another ignorant beauty. It was too
soon to propose to either. Yet as he glanced impatiently at his watch,
Warren realized that the charm of Agatha was her unexpectedness. You
never knew what she was going to do. You never could tell what she
might make you do, in spite of your better judgment.

Agatha's delay gave him the time he needed. She presented herself in
a faded gingham which nevertheless had the advantage of being freshly
laundered, her heavy hair wound about her head with a negligence
a woman would have interpreted to mean that to Agatha, her caller
mattered very little. Now that her face was clean he saw how pale she
was, and how dark the circles under her eyes, and this discovery was
responsible for an unwonted gentleness in his manner. He talked as a
big brother might have talked, and the instinctive, virginal defiance
which his unconcealed admiration had always roused in her, changed by
imperceptible degrees to confidence.

He asked her bluntly about her finances and she told him without
hesitation or evasion. He hinted at monetary assistance and she stopped
him midway, with an imperious tilt of her chin and a haughty stare.
"You are not talking to Hephzibah Diggs," she reminded him.

Warren sighed and changed his tactics. "Did you ever think of selling
your place?"

"I'm afraid nobody would want it, it's so dreadfully old and
tumbledown. And besides we've got to have a roof over our heads."

"You couldn't sell it here, of course. But there are possibilities in
this place. A small summer hotel ought to do well. Magnificent old
trees, fine view, convenient to the city." He studied his surroundings
with an appraising eye. "It should bring at least fifteen thousand if
you found the right purchaser."

She caught her breath and the sound brought his eyes back to her face.
What he saw touched him profoundly. Indeed he felt the smart of tears
under his drooping lids. "My God," he said to himself, "to have her
look like that over a paltry fifteen thousand."

"Then I could send Howard to college," Agatha was saying, breathlessly.

"Sure you could."

"And there would be enough to take care of Fritz--Miss Finch, as long
as she lives."

"I hope you'd do something for Hephzibah Diggs," said Warren gruffly,
to hide his emotion. "That girl has something coming to her, believe
me!"

Warren spent most of his leisure entertaining people, but he seldom
felt better repaid than when Agatha greeted this jest with a quiver of
laughter.

"I promise you she shall have a new gingham, perhaps a party dress if
the money holds out."

"Yes, that's what Hephzibah would want, a party dress," said Warren.
"And I speak for the first dance the first time she wears it." He went
on to discuss sales and investments, and Agatha hung upon his words.
He perceived that the practical line appealed to her. His tentative
love-making bored and angered her. When he talked of gilt-edged
first mortgages, bringing six per cent., she leaned toward him, her
reddish-gold eyes melting into his, and seemed ready to leap into his
arms.

The carriage he had ordered came for him at what he considered a
ridiculously early hour and he kept it waiting while he explained that
he would immediately take up the matter of the sale of her property
with several people who might possibly be interested. She let him hold
her hand while he protracted his good-by to an unconscionable length,
and he argued well from this, till she disconcerted him by saying
faintly, "Shall you see Mr. Forbes soon?"

"I can't say. The fair Julia may have hustled him away before I'm back."

"If--if you should see him," said Agatha, her lips white, "try to
make him think kindly of me. Try to make him understand that I didn't
realize that I was doing anything wrong."

"To be sure I will," replied Warren with misleading heartiness. "But if
a man is such a blasted fool as to need that assurance, it's not worth
troubling your little head about him, don't you see?" And then he said
good-by again and went off in an unprecedentedly bad humor, damning
Forbes whole-heartedly all the way to town.

Warren's call left Miss Finch pleasurably excited. For a man to come
out from the city for a few hours' talk with a girl, argued his
intentions serious. And Agatha's abstraction, the dreamy look in her
eyes, the irrelevant nature of her replies to the simplest questions,
seemed to imply a gratifying responsiveness in her mood. Little did the
innocent spinster dream that Agatha's absorption was due to calculating
the wisest expenditure of an income derived from an investment of
fifteen thousand dollars in first mortgages at six per cent.

But Miss Finch's elation was short-lived, for Howard came home with a
startling piece of news. "Heard the funniest thing to-day. Who do you
suppose has been getting married?"

To please him Agatha hazarded a guess. Howard shook his head.

"It's the last one you'd ever think of. Old Billy-goat Wiggins. He
married a widow out on the Jericho pike and I guess he's had six or
seven wives already."

Without attempting to correct her brother's exaggeration, Agatha cast
an apprehensive glance in Miss Finch's direction. Miss Finch met her
look with an air of resolute calm. At last the matter was settled. Now
that one of her lovers was out of the running, the only thing left was
to take the other. Her days of anxious deliberation, due to weighing
one man against his rival, were over, and it was a great relief. "Mrs.
James Doolittle," said Miss Finch to herself and blushed high. Well,
Doolittle was as good a name as Wiggins. "I b'lieve if anything, it's a
little more aristocratic," Miss Finch decided.

But as the evening wore on, she found herself disquieted. In her
thoughts of James Doolittle there was little of roseate illusion. She
saw him mentally as she had seen him uncounted times in reality, his
trousers patched and bagging at the knees, his shirt soiled and faded,
his hat suggesting that some predatory animal had taken frequent bites
out of the rim. "I do like a man to look neat," sighed Miss Finch.
She recalled too, the tumbledown cottage where James Doolittle had
kept bachelor's hall since his mother's death six years earlier, and
compared it disadvantageously with her present quarters. Romance had
spread her wings, and taken flight. Marriage had become a very drab,
prosaic affair. But there was no help for it.

Miss Finch retired to her room rather early and wrote Mr. Doolittle
accepting the offer of marriage made nearly two months before. It was
a prim little note and if her delay had been unflattering, there was
nothing in her formula of acceptance to restore the masculine _amour
propre_. She said that marriage was a very serious matter, and she
hoped they were making no mistake. She signed her name Zaida Finch, and
realizing that the compact signature would soon be replaced by that of
an unknown female, Zaida Doolittle, she shed some agitated tears.

The letter was sealed and stamped on the table beside her and Miss
Finch was lying awake wondering whether the tongue of slander would
be set wagging if she should decide on giving the Doolittle cottage
a thorough cleaning before taking the step that would make her its
permanent mistress, when Phemie came blundering up the stairs.

Miss Finch sprang out of bed and, candle in hand, appeared in the
doorway. She shook a chiding finger at the girl. "Don't make such a
racket," she hissed. "Everybody's been in bed for hours. You oughtn't
to stay out so late, Phemie. It don't look right in a young girl."

Phemie did not seem aware that she was being scolded. She was full of
silly giggles and pleased to find a confidante to share her amusement.
She pushed her way uninvited into Miss Finch's room.

"I never had so much fun in my life," wheezed Phemie in what she
mistakenly supposed to be a whisper. "Oh, my goodness, I've laughed fit
to bust myself."

"Where've you been?" demanded Miss Finch, eying her disapprovingly.

"I've been to a shivaree. Whole crowd of us went. We had horns and tin
pans and Ernie Cox took a cow-bell along. Oh, my goodness!" Phemie
placed her hands on her hips, and rocked back and forth in an ecstasy
of mirth.

Miss Finch's severity became more pronounced. "I think you might have
been in better business. Deacon Wiggins has been married quite a few
times, I know, but he's a good citizen and a pillar of the church."

"'Twarn't Deacon Wiggins. 'Twas Jim Doolittle. He just got married to
that cross-eyed old maid who used to work at Phelps' store."

When Miss Finch could get rid of Phemie she tore the letter she had
so painstakingly composed into the minutest fragments, promising
herself to burn them in the morning before any one was up. Innocent
as her intentions had been, the fact remained that she had written a
compromising letter to a married man, and she could not feel safe till
the sole evidence of her indiscretion had been reduced to ashes. As she
climbed back into bed she might perhaps have been excused for indulging
in pessimistic reflections on masculine perfidy, and the hollowness of
lovers' vows, but in point of fact her mood was eminently Christian.
To her own secret amazement she was chiefly conscious of overwhelming
relief.

The critical relatives of Deacon Wiggins' three deceased partners were
nothing to her. Mr. Doolittle's tendency to wear his trousers with only
one frail suspender as a support was no concern of hers, except as any
respectable spinster might venture to hope that his rashness would not
carry him too far. That good old name Finch, which had been identified
with her personality for half a century, would not be exchanged for any
unfamiliar polysyllable. Without knowing it, she had been shrinkingly
apprehensive of coming changes, and now everything was going on
exactly as it had before.

"If Agatha marries Mr. Warren and has a family of children," thought
Miss Finch, "she'll need somebody reliable in the house. And if she
doesn't get a husband, I ought to be around to look after her. And
anyway, nobody can ever say that the reason I never married is that I
never had a chance."

And so comforting was that concluding thought that even after sleep
claimed her as its own, a complacent, almost a triumphant smile,
hovered about Miss Finch's parted lips.



CHAPTER XXI

ENLIGHTENMENT


Warren stamped the snow from his feet, shook himself like a wet dog,
and entering the apartment hotel, passed at a step from the frigid zone
to the tropics. At the desk he gave his name to a businesslike young
woman who ascertained over the telephone that Mr. Forbes was in, and
forthwith Warren was shot to the fifth floor. A smiling Japanese boy
opened the door of Forbes' rooms, and Forbes himself came forward and
gripped his friend's hand.

For a moment neither man found speech possible. "Congratulations, old
fellow," Warren got out at last. "Best news I've heard for many a moon."

He gave his snowy coat to the waiting servant, seated himself and
lighted a cigarette as a preliminary to conversation. "Well, how does
it seem to have two eyes again? A bit intoxicating, I fancy. Rather
like too much champagne."

"You know when a man has suffered enough, his idea of perfect
happiness is to have the pain stop," Forbes answered. "I suppose the
only way to size up a blessing at its real value is to have to do
without it for a time." His words seemed to meet the requirements
in the case, but Warren's quick ear detected in his voice a note
of melancholy, and he thought he knew the explanation. Not being
remarkable for tact, he promptly broached the delicate subject.

"Well, the fair Julia has done it. I got her cards week before last.
Gosh, when you see the fellows the dear girls marry, it almost seems a
compliment when they turn you down. You'd think it would take more than
the Prendergast money and family connections and all that, to sugarcoat
a pill like Murray."

"I wish her more happiness than she's likely to have, I'm afraid."
Forbes spoke formally, his manner implying that it might be as well for
Warren to change the subject, but his visitor took his time.

"Oh, well, Julia isn't capable of real unhappiness. She could be
uncomfortable, or disappointed, or humiliated, or anything that doesn't
go too deep, but unhappiness is beyond her. That other little girl now,
she's different."

Forbes did not ask what girl was referred to. He kept his eyes on the
floor.

"Julia looks as soft as a ripe plum," Warren continued. "Most of the
dear creatures do, as if a rough word would crush them. But believe
me, she's made of the same hard, calculating stuff as her old man. You
never heard of old Studley's losing any sleep over the men he'd ruined
on the street, did you? Julia won't have a wrinkle when she's sixty. If
anybody is going to marry Murray Prendergast it ought to be that kind
of woman."

If Forbes agreed with this frank expression of opinion, he gave no
sign. He had the appearance of waiting patiently for the other to
finish.

"Our little friend Hephzibah," continued Warren, "is the sort whose
hair turns white in a single night, you know. Not that hers has--God
forbid. You never saw that hair, my boy. You've got something to live
for."

Forbes made a gesture of impatience. "Do you happen to know Miss Kent's
address at the present time?"

"Do you happen to _want_ Miss Kent's address at the present time?"
mocked Warren truculently.

Forbes hesitated. "Yes," he said with a seeming effort at frankness,
"I do. Some of the things that were said, Warren, about her poverty,
you remember, caused me considerable uneasiness. I felt that my leaving
as I did when she had counted on having me until the cold weather,
might have embarrassed her, and whatever ground I may have had for
resentment, I had no wish to add to her financial worries. And so I
sent her a check for the full amount I would have paid for board, up to
the first of November."

Warren laughed sardonically. "Oh, you did, did you?"

"Yes, I did." Forbes' manner was a trifle aggrieved. "She returned it."

"Of course!"

"Perhaps you are in her confidence," Forbes said in a tone of annoyance.

"She never mentioned that particular matter to me. But I am glad to
believe that she repays my friendship by a degree of trust."

Forbes waited a moment before continuing his explanation. "I did not
write her again for some time. I was rather put out by the return of
the check, foolishly, I suppose. But the last of November I sent her a
rather long letter. You know, Ridgeley, when all is said and done, the
girl saved my life."

"Well?"

"The letter came back to me from the Dead Letter Office. I thought it
was a trick of some sort. It seemed incredible, you know, that when her
family has been living at Oak Knoll for generations, she should drop
out of sight and leave no more trace than an extinguished candle flame.
I sent Evans down to look her up, and he reported that the three of
them, Miss Kent, her foster brother, Howard, and Miss Finch, had all
left town, and none of the old neighbors could give him any information
as to their whereabouts. The old place has been sold to some one who is
planning to build a summer hotel on the site."

Warren nodded. "I engineered that deal. It's a good location for such
an enterprise. She sold for twelve thousand. I think I could have got
her two or three thousand more, if she had been willing to wait, but
she wasn't."

Forbes tried to appear relieved. "Twelve thousand! Well, I am glad to
know she is not in immediate need. At the same time, Ridgeley, I should
like her address."

Warren eyed him with malevolence. "It looks to me as if she wasn't
particularly anxious for you to have it."

Forbes reddened. "Nonsense! Don't be an ass, Warren. It's quite
important that I should have a talk with Miss Kent."

"I suppose you want to be sure that she's sufficiently penitent for the
deception she practised on you."

"Really, my dear fellow, I can hardly see that it is any of your
business what I have to say to her."

"Simply that I'm a friend of the lady's. And the only reason that I'm
not her husband is that she's refused me, by letter and word of mouth,
just eleven times by actual count. A singularly consistent character,
our Hephzibah."

Forbes sat biting his lips. "I'm very sorry, Warren. I needn't say I
had no idea--"

"Of course you had no idea. You took her devotion as a matter of
course. You let your Julia insult her without speaking a word in her
defense. And it never occurred to you that another man might think her
unselfishness and her courage and her beauty and her wit made her a
woman in a million."

"I must correct you on one point," Forbes said stiffly. "It is true
the discovery that Miss Kent was not what I supposed her took me by
surprise and I was both hurt and angry. But the engagement between
Miss Studley and myself was broken finally and irrevocably because
I defended--partly at least--the course Miss Kent had taken." He
hesitated before adding, "If you really wish to marry her--"

"Oh, to hell with your '_ifs!_' I've been on my knees to her from the
first minute I saw her. I'd marry her if she were Hephzibah Diggs."

"I was only going to say, Ridgeley, that if you are in earnest, you are
pretty sure to win out. I can hardly imagine any woman's continuing to
turn you down."

Warren did not appear touched by the obvious sincerity of this tribute.
He glowered at the other man ill-naturedly.

"I dare say she would have married me but for one thing. I came on the
scene too late."

"Too late?"

"Another man got ahead of me. She couldn't love me because she loved
him."

"Do you mean that she's engaged?"

"Damn you!" Warren shouted furiously. "Don't put on those unconscious
airs with me. You know well enough what man I mean, and you know
whether you're engaged to her or not."

"You're out of your mind, Warren. You're talking like an insane man."

"Let it go at that, then. Call it that I'm crazy."

"If you will remember that I thought Miss Kent an elderly woman, you
will realize that I--"

"Oh, your immaculate skirts are clean," exclaimed Warren, with
preposterous bitterness. "You didn't make love to the nice old lady who
was your father's boyhood flame. But you were so helpless and so darned
pathetic and so dependent on her that you didn't have to. She's not
like Julia, looking for an easy berth and a through ticket. Her idea of
love is giving, giving without keeping count."

"You don't know what you're talking about," said Forbes, but with less
conviction.

"Don't I, though! Do you remember the scheme we hatched to send
Hephzibah to school?"

Forbes nodded.

"I came up and had a talk with her. Of course she was playing a part,
but it wasn't all play-acting. She practically told me there was
somebody she cared for. She--hang it all, Forbes, she's not always the
audacious little devil who can palm herself off on an intelligent man
as her own great-aunt, and never miss a cog. There was a look on her
face when she spoke of that man--she was all angel, then."

"But what possible reason have you for thinking--why, you make me
feel an ass for listening." Forbes' humility was so obvious as to be
disarming.

"I know you're the man. She was always at me to have a talk with you
and plead her cause, you know."

"But surely that wouldn't mean--"

"Yes, if you'd seen her eyes. You know how a dog looks when his master
kicks him. Like that."

"Good God, Warren--"

"Oh, I don't suppose you like it," said Warren grimly. "But let me
remind you that if it's unpleasant for you to listen, it's hell for
me to tell you. I suppose you know what brought Julia to Oak Knoll to
rescue you by force of arms."

"I believe Miss Kent wrote a letter."

"Yes, under pretense of congratulating Julia on her prospective
engagement, she wrote her that you had been spending the most of your
summer in the company of an attractive young girl. She'd sized up
Julia's disposition pretty cleverly and she reckoned that if anything
would hold her back, it would be a suspicion that there was a flaw in
her title to your life-long devotion."

"But surely if she had felt as you imagine--"

"We're talking of Hephzibah, you know," growled Warren. "She was
thinking of _your_ happiness, not of hers. Of course she knew she was
taking a long shot. She was too smart to miss that little point. She
risked exposure to give you what you wanted. That's the sort she is."
He added gloomily, "I don't know why I'm such a fool as to tell you all
this. I suppose it's because I know I haven't the ghost of a chance."

There was a long, depressing silence. "Well," said Forbes at length,
his voice curiously shaken, "where shall I find her?"

"Good God, man, I don't know."

"You don't know?"

"The last word I had from her was a Christmas card and the blasted
post-mark was so blurred that I couldn't make out where it was mailed.
And in November I had this letter. You might as well read it, I
suppose."

He took the worn missive from his pocket, handed it to Forbes, and
began to smoke furiously. Forbes, his face very pale, read without
comment.

 "My Dear Mr. Warren:

 "Well, the thing is accomplished. I am a capitalist, a woman of
 wealth, and also a wanderer on the face of the earth. But I'm not
 worrying about that side of it, it's so delicious to feel that all
 this money is mine and that I can have a trunk full of new clothes if
 I feel like it.

 "Howard left for school yesterday. He will be a little behind his
 class, but the principal thinks he will have no difficulty in catching
 up if he is willing to work. Howard is so ambitious and eager that I
 know he is going to make me proud of him.

 "You see I am sending you a check. It was awfully good of you to want
 to put this deal through because of your interest in me, but I can't
 help thinking it's better to be businesslike in business and friendly
 in friendship. So this check is for the celebrated lawyer, Mr.
 Warren, who has managed this affair so wonderfully, and my heart-felt
 gratitude is for my dear friend, Ridgeley Warren, whose kindness and
 generosity have been so much more than I deserved. I shall never
 forget it. When I am a wrinkled old woman, and can smile at some of
 the things that hurt now, it will warm my heart to remember your
 goodness.

 "Dear Mr. Warren, I am not going to write you again at present. I
 have a feeling that if you keep on seeing me, you are more likely to
 keep on wishing for something it is better for you to forget. I am
 sure your generosity has more to do with your feeling than you have
 any idea of, and that when I am no longer at hand to make a continual
 appeal to your sympathy, you will soon be your usual self. I hope you
 will love the most beautiful and noblest girl in the world and marry
 her, and if you ever have reason to think that she doesn't appreciate
 the fact that she has drawn a prize, just send for me and I'll open
 her eyes.

 "Words seem such inadequate things, don't they, when one's heart is
 full? I wish you could know all I mean when I say, Thank you.

 "Gratefully yours,

 "Agatha Kent.

 "P.S. You will, I am sure, be seeing Mr. Forbes soon. The greatest
 favor you can do me is to make him understand how thoughtlessly I
 entered on the deception he so naturally resents. You see we were
 such good friends in a way--he really liked me and trusted me while
 he thought I was somebody else--it hurts to realize how completely I
 have forfeited his good opinion. You seem to understand so well that
 perhaps you may influence him to think of me a little more kindly."

Forbes folded the letter and gave it to its owner. "You deserve her if
any man does, Ridgeley," he said with proper humility.

"I deserve her more than you do, if that's what you're trying to say,"
barked Warren. "And now you see what we're up against. Between us
we've lost all trace of her."

"We must find her again," Forbes said firmly.

Warren's hostile gaze challenged him. "What for? Do you want to rub it
in how she's outraged the sacred name of truth and all that rot?"

"No."

"Perhaps you're going to be magnanimous enough to forgive her?"

"Possibly," Forbes offered quietly, "I want to ask her to forgive me."

Warren's unhappy eyes met his full. "I suppose I'm in a rotten humor,
old man. I do think you're a damned sight luckier than you deserve to
be. But let it go. The question is, how are we to find her?"

As one result of the deliberations protracted over several hours, the
following advertisement appeared in the leading newspapers of a dozen
large cities:

 "Information wanted. Any person acquainted with the present
 whereabouts of Hephzibah Diggs will confer a favor by communicating at
 once with the undersigned."

The anxious weeks went by. The two men consulted almost daily, with
growing perplexity and diminishing hope. And Agatha made no sign.



CHAPTER XXII

FELLOW TRAVELERS


The hat Agatha was adjusting before the mirror was a black toque with
a quill at the side. On most heads it would have possessed no more
individuality than a clover blossom. It was one of the hats which
apparently are planned with a view to being inconspicuous. But as
Agatha pinned it in place it seemed to assume a certain provocative
quality. It became a challenge to the masculine eye.

The same was true of the blue serge suit she wore. Nothing can be
imagined more innocuous than a suit of blue serge, embellished with
narrow black braid. Miss Finch could have worn one of the identical cut
and material and it would have looked as if it had been designed for
her. Yet on Agatha the blue serge was alluring. It captured the eye as
though striped with scarlet.

Mrs. Van Horne, a stout, middle-aged woman who occupied a swivel
chair at a businesslike desk, watched the operation of adjusting the
black toque and rubbed her nose with a flourish indicating mental
perturbation. It had occurred to her that Agatha was a somewhat
colorful person for the task to which she had been assigned, that she
looked undeniably youthful for so responsible an errand, that some one
grayer in tone and of an aspect radiating propriety and decorum, would
have been better fitted for the duty in hand. Mrs. Van Horne looked at
the clock, saw it lacked but thirty-seven minutes to train time, and
brushed aside her scruples. It was now too late to change.

"You are sure you feel equal to taking charge of the four, Miss Kent?"
she said, more for the reassuring effect of Agatha's self-confident
answer than because she had the slightest doubt what that answer would
be.

Agatha turned a vivacious face. "I'm really looking forward to the
trip. It'll be such fun."

"I should hardly use that term to describe traveling in charge of four
children," observed Mrs. Van Horne, with a grim smile. "And one of them
a teething baby. You will naturally attract a good deal of attention."

"Not a bit," said Agatha briskly.

"You think not?"

"Every one will take it for granted that I am a young mother, coming
home with my little family to visit grandpa and grandma."

Mrs. Van Horne's brow cleared. As the representative of a
serious-minded organization, with an established reputation for
prudence and sagacity, she had been accusing herself of indiscretion
in entrusting this important commission to a young woman of such
butterfly aspect, even though in self-defense she insisted that of her
assistants, Miss Kent was easily the most resourceful and capable.
Agatha's suggestion brought relief. Without doubt she was right. The
traveling public would assume her to be a matron of extraordinarily
youthful appearance. No one would question the discretion of the head
of the Hamilton Orphanage for committing four children to the care of
one who, whatever her capacity, looked a fly-away girl.

"I imagine you are right, Miss Kent," she said. "And if I were you,
I should take no pains to correct the impression. It will save you a
great many annoying questions."

A maid appeared with news that the taxi had arrived. A nurse brought
in the baby, hooded and cloaked for its journey. Outside on the steps
waited the three older children, about to be placed in homes which had
been duly inspected and approved by authorized representatives of the
orphanage. As Agatha assembled her charges and led the way to the cab,
little faces appeared at the windows, small hands waved farewells and a
chorus of shrill voices called good-by. An irrepressible little orphan
of a plainness which so far had defied the efforts of the society to
place her in a desirable home, came running to the curb as Agatha was
arranging her charges about her. "I don't want anybody to 'dopt you,
Miss Kent," she quavered.

"Bless your heart!" Agatha leaned out and kissed her squarely. "No
one's going to adopt me. I'll be back by Saturday."

As the cab rattled down the street, Agatha turned for a look at the
square, uncompromising building where she had found a haven six months
before. Despite the opulent tone of her letter to Warren, Agatha
had fully realized that twelve thousand dollars does not constitute
wealth. Howard's education was provided for, and that was an enormous
relief, but her responsibility for Miss Finch still lay heavy on her
heart and she was determined not to draw on her principal any more
than was absolutely necessary. The opening at the Hamilton Orphanage
had come to her through a series of fortunate accidents, and Agatha
had flung herself into the work with an enthusiasm which had insured
her immediate success. Agatha loved the orphanage and the orphans.
The maternal instinct, always strong in her, exulted in the swarm of
children on whom she could lavish herself. There was no urchin so
refractory that Agatha could not find excuses for him, no little face
so plain that she could not discern in it something of winsomeness. She
saw the humor in the naughtiness of some unruly youngster where most of
her associates perceived only irrefutable confirmation of the doctrine
of original sin. Mrs. Van Horne, accustomed to aids who did their duty
with automatic faithfulness, found Agatha too good to be true.

Miss Finch boarded in the vicinity of the orphanage and Agatha
spent with her all the time she was not on duty. It had been hard
to reconcile Miss Finch to being in the same city with Warren and
not acquainting him with the fact. The sudden termination of her own
double romance had intensified her passionate interest in Agatha's
love-affairs. She thought of the subject continually. She dreamed of
Agatha as a bride lovely in creamy silk and floating veil. She harped
on the subject till Agatha's nerves suffered and sometimes she betrayed
her irritation in speech.

Agatha was not thinking either of Warren or Forbes as she was bounced
to the station, the baby in her arms and the three other children
mixed in indistinguishably with the luggage. Children are an admirable
antidote to unprofitable thinking, because of their capacity for
demanding one's entire attention. There were two little girls between
three and four years, who looked rather like twins, but were not
even sisters, and there was a boy soon to be five. The baby was just
getting old enough to be afraid of strangers and was fretful because
of teething. It did not look as if Agatha would have many minutes for
meditating on the hardships of her own lot.

At the station, with the aid of two sympathetic porters, Agatha got her
charges aboard the Pullman and settled herself comfortably some minutes
in advance of the other passengers. As they entered by ones and twos,
she was aware of interested glances in her direction, in some cases
the interest blended with apprehension. "Horrors!" she heard one woman
say to her husband as she passed. Agatha looked after her darkly. She
was instantly convinced that the speaker was the owner of a toy poodle.

A moment before the train pulled out, a man came into the Pullman and
took his seat in the section opposite hers, glancing amiably at the
promising little family across the aisle. Agatha shrank away from the
look, feeling faint and sick. There was an ominous ringing in her ears.
So strong was her sense of panic that if she had had another moment in
which to act, she might have marshalled her brood off the train and
trusted to finding some excuse that would satisfy Mrs. Van Horne. But
before her impulse toward flight had time to crystallize, the last "All
aboard" had been shouted. The train shuddered, groaned and moved out.

As the clear daylight replaced the semi-darkness of the terminal
station, Agatha blushed furiously. She sat huddled in her corner,
awaiting the outcome like a criminal who anticipates arrest. Gradually
her unreasoning alarm was replaced by coherent thinking. If Forbes were
still blind, she might travel as his fellow passenger to the Pacific
coast without his being the wiser. But he had come on board unattended,
moving freely and fearlessly. If his sight had been restored, she was
still safe, for he had never seen her face.

After a time she brought her courage to the point of stealing a glance
at him. A newspaper lay upon his knee, and though he was not reading at
the moment, its presence confirmed the impression she had formed as he
entered. He could see again. She found herself trembling for gladness
and swallowing hard at an obstinate lump in her throat. The dark
spectacles he had worn throughout his sojourn at Oak Knoll had been
replaced by a pair of eye-glasses, which, to her prejudiced judgment,
added to his air of distinction. Now that her first unreasonable terror
had subsided, she found his proximity delightfully exhilarating.

The next thought brought a pang. If he could see again there was no
longer a barrier between himself and Julia. Agatha's duties at the
Hamilton Orphanage left her little time for perusing the society
columns, so prominent a feature of the city journals, and she had
missed the detailed accounts of Julia's wedding, with their emphasis on
the beauty of the bride and the family connections of the groom. If he
were about to marry Julia, Agatha reasoned, he should look very happy.
She peered interrogatively in his direction to settle this important
point, encountered his eyes unexpectedly, and looked away in crimson
confusion.

Forbes found the domestic group in such close proximity more
entertaining than his newspaper. He thought he had never seen a
prettier picture of radiant motherhood than this lovely young creature
with her little ones around her. It was a pity, he reflected, that none
of the children had inherited her rare beauty. They were all wholesome
little youngsters, bidding fair to grow to commonplace maturity as
far as externals were concerned. He found himself forming a somewhat
uncomplimentary picture of the father of the quartet, a rather heavy,
gross individual with a muddy skin.

Other people than Forbes found an irresistible attraction in the
family group. The woman Agatha had branded as the owner of a poodle,
an overfed blonde, came down the aisle and paused to settle some
points on which she was uncertain. Agatha, mindful of Mrs. Van Horne's
injunction, gave the desired information as to the sex of the baby and
the brand of artificial food she favored, without any hint that her
sense of responsibility was less than maternal.

"Are the little girls twins?" quizzed the stout woman, with an arrogant
assumption of having every right to know.

"No, the curly-haired one is the older."

"They must have come very close," said the stout woman disapprovingly.

"There is about six months' difference," replied Agatha unthinkingly.
The stout woman's start told her too late what she had done, but as
no satisfactory explanation occurred to her, she sat stolidly making
a pretense of being absorbed in soothing the fretful baby. Her late
interrogator, assuming the reply to be an impertinent substitute for
telling her to mind her own business, stalked away, her manner implying
that she washed her hands of Agatha and her family.

Agatha had no time for unavailing grief. Four children under five are
capable of providing abundant occupation for the most strenuous nature.
She was rising for the third time in twenty minutes to minister to the
wants of the oldest boy who had announced emphatically that he was
"fursty," when Forbes stepped across the aisle.

"Just let me wait on him," he said. "At this rate you will be worn out
before you reach the end of your journey."

The sound of his clear voice was almost her undoing. She wanted to
laugh; she wanted to cry. She wanted most of all to put her head down
on his broad shoulder and cling to him till he had forgiven her. As
none of these things appeared feasible, she contented herself with
saying, "Thank you," in a voice so faint as hardly to be audible.

Forbes gave the restless lad a drink of water and took him into his
section. Agatha heard her charge announcing in a penetrating voice
that his name was Charlie Briggs, whether in answer to a question or
not, she was not sure. Then the small boy nestled close to the big
man, and listened raptly. She judged that Forbes must be telling him
a story, and after the manner of her kind, she found this additional
ground for worship. As a matter of fact Forbes was giving in detail
the life-history of a pony he had owned when a boy. This chronicle
concluded, he went on to describe a bear hunt in which he had once
participated, and found his reward in the admiring gaze his listener
fastened upon him.

Presently Charlie Briggs felt constrained to be entertaining in turn.
"I'm going to get a new papa, pretty soon," he announced.

Forbes felt an uncomfortable sense of shock. If the woman in the
opposite section were a widow, the age of the child in her arms
indicated that her bereavement was extremely recent. It seemed more
probable that it was one of the cases which prove the frailty of the
marriage bond in America. He did not know why this conjecture should be
responsible for so marked a feeling of discomfort.

He changed the subject abruptly and proceeded to entertain Charlie with
an imaginary incident in the life of a gray squirrel, taking Thompson
Seton as his model. In the course of the narrative the baby had an
attack of crying and its shrieks distracted Forbes' attention. He
hesitated, lost the thread of his story, became hopelessly entangled.

Charlie understood his friend's confusion. He looked across the aisle,
scowling darkly. "She's going to get rid of the baby pretty soon," he
informed his companion. "To-morrow it won't be 'round to bother."

Again Forbes was conscious of a feeling of revulsion. The child's
remark was capable of several interpretations, but to his thinking the
meaning was obvious. This pretty little woman was about to marry for
the second time, and the husband-to-be objected to the size of the
ready-made family. Evidently she planned to give the baby away. Rather
absurdly Forbes found himself thinking that he would not have believed
it of her.

The baby was behaving outrageously, almost justifying its mother's
unnatural intention. Agatha had become sadly disheveled. Her hair--she
really had wonderful hair, Forbes owned, for all his disapproval--was
gradually slipping down. Her face was crimson from her exertions. The
shirt-waist, immaculate when she boarded the Pullman, was mussed, and
one shoulder damp, due to the baby's repeated experiments to ascertain
whether it possessed nutritive qualities. As Forbes involuntarily
looked at the opposite section, the ear-splitting sounds compelling his
reluctant attention, Agatha transferred the baby's head to the other
shoulder, cuddling the little form close to her heart. There was such
divinely patient tenderness in the gesture that Forbes underwent an
instant revulsion of feeling.

He did not understand it in the least, but he suddenly felt sure of
the woman. Whatever the shortcomings of Mr. Briggs or his probable
successor, the girlish wife did not lack womanly qualities. He was
unjust enough to feel decidedly vexed with the little boy. Probably
he had listened to discussions of matters he did not understand, and
mixed things up. Forbes told himself that he had never liked precocious
children.

The baby suddenly decided to go to sleep. Its squalls ceased magically.
Its little body, stiffened in unavailing protest against all the
injustice of the world, relaxed in complete forgetfulness. The feverish
flush receded from Agatha's brow. She sat with drooping eyelids, a
pensive madonna. Forbes' wilful gaze would not observe the bounds of
propriety. Again and again it sought her, and when at length his eyes
encountered hers, he smiled his congratulations. She gave him back a
timid smile with a curious underlying wistfulness. It needed only that
smile to clinch his faith in her.

When the call for luncheon was given, he crossed the aisle. "Won't you
let me stay with the children while you eat? With the baby asleep, I
think I can safely make the offer."

In a voice hardly above a whisper, Agatha explained that they had
brought sandwiches.

"But you'll let me bring you in a cup of tea or coffee, won't you?
You've had a very strenuous morning and you certainly need something in
the way of a stimulant."

Perversely Agatha declined the offer, though she was longing to say
yes. It was not that she felt the need of tea or coffee or of anything
so gross as food or drink, but there was something ineffably refreshing
in his solicitude for her comfort. His good offices declined, Forbes
touched his hat and was turning away, when Charlie Briggs plunged into
the aisle and seized his coat. "I don't want you to go," he howled.

Forbes came back, boyishly eager. "Let me take him with me, won't you?
You will have your hands full enough with the three and I promise not
to give him anything a child of his age ought not to eat."

Agatha had already regretted her obduracy. She gave the desired
permission with a radiant smile, impelling Forbes to think excusingly
how very young she must have been when she married Mr. Briggs. As he
went toward the dining-car, Charlie clinging to his hand, the owner
of the poodle expressed to her husband the conviction that something
or somebody was shameless. She would have characterized herself as
possessing a forgiving disposition but would have added that there are
some things nobody can be expected to overlook. The case of the two
children, six months apart, was one of them.

Forbes returned from the dining-car looking at his watch. The porter
appeared without warning and brushed him off obsequiously. Agatha's
heart contracted. It needed no prophet to foretell what was about to
happen.

He came to her side, addressing her pleasantly. "I leave you at the
next station. I expect to meet a friend there. I wish I might have gone
farther and relieved you a little of your responsibilities."

He checked himself suddenly, thinking that this rather silent young
woman was about to speak. She was looking up at him with a strange,
disconcerting earnestness. Nor had his intuition been at fault. For
a moment Agatha did battle with an almost irresistible temptation to
shout at him, "I am Agatha Kent."

Almost at once she realized the folly of her momentary purpose. He
was about to leave the train. There was no time for explanations, to
say nothing of coming to an understanding. Moreover it was possible
that the friend he was to meet was Julia herself. This last thought
completed the paralysis of her passing impulse. In a stifled voice she
told him that he had been very kind.

"You are a very courageous young woman," Forbes replied. "I hope
you won't be too tired when you reach your destination." He patted
Charlie's shoulder and turned away. The obsequious porter was removing
his grips. With a last smile to Agatha he went down the aisle.

Agatha leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. The tears ran down
her cheeks unchecked. Probably this was the last time she would ever
see him and that was no cause for regret since the pleasure of such
encounters was so over-balanced by the pain. And moreover he must be on
the point of marrying Julia, if he had not already made her his wife.
It was better that he should go his way, unaware that again their paths
had crossed.

Forbes, stepping to the station platform, gave his grips to a station
porter and looked about for Warren. A minute or two passed before he
could distinguish him in the crowd and he was beginning to think
his friend was late, when his eye fell upon him standing at the edge
of the platform and gazing idly at the train which had been a little
behind-hand, and was already beginning to pull out.

Forbes approached him briskly, the porter at his heels. His lips were
parted to speak the other's name, when Warren started violently and
took a step forward. "Hephzibah!" he shouted.

Forbes spun on his heel. The coach he had just quitted was passing.
From the window a girl looked out, a girl with disheveled red-gold
hair and tear-stained cheeks. In an instant he understood. The girl in
charge of the four children was Agatha. It could be nobody but Agatha.
He knew now what she had wanted to say when she had looked up at him.
He understood the wistfulness of her smile, the entreaty in her eyes.
He had searched for her vainly all winter, and a moment before he had
talked to her face to face and had not known.

Forbes' reason was in abeyance. The last car of the long
vestibuled-train was just abreast him, moving with considerable
velocity. With a spring he gained the lower step, seizing the railings
on either side. He was vaguely aware of a shout from the receding
platform and he almost thought he could distinguish Warren's voice
lifted in a bellow of astonishment. But for the time being all other
emotions were submerged by an overwhelming satisfaction in the
realization that Agatha and he were still fellow travelers.



CHAPTER XXIII

AN INTRODUCTION


Forbes waited for the door to be opened with sensations approximating
those of a naughty boy, caught in mischief. Man of the world as he was,
he recoiled from the prospect before him. He had never been of the
temperament to ignore precedent and defy regulations, and the necessary
explanations to outraged authority were no more attractive because they
were something new in his experience. Hardly more agreeable than his
anticipations of an interview with the conductor was the realization of
the probable comments of his fellow passengers, the smiles that would
be exchanged, the curious conjectures passed from one to another, as to
the occasion for his act.

As Forbes reflected ruefully on the coming ordeal, his hat was lifted
lightly from his head and sent whirling on an independent journey. His
impulse to snatch after it was checked by the discovery that he needed
both hands for another purpose, needed them imperatively, for the lurch
of the train had nearly thrown him off his balance. He tightened his
grip and gave himself up to irritated reflection. Like most men, Forbes
was pathetically dependent on his hat. He never so much as crossed the
street without it. Now it would be necessary to make the rest of his
journey hatless and leave the train in some unfamiliar city, stared
at by the crowd who would mistake him for a faddist, demonstrating a
protest against conventional garb. Forbes' annoyance gave vent in a
profane ejaculation.

The next to go were his eye-glasses. Again Forbes' inclination to
clutch for his vanishing possessions was conquered just in time to save
him from following in their wake. The narrow margin by which he had
missed death did not prevent him from grieving over his glasses. He had
no others with him. He would not be able to read till he reached home,
and the strain on his eyes would probably bring on a severe headache.
His hat could be replaced at the first shop, but not his glasses. He
found it hard to be reconciled to such ill luck.

It was several minutes before the realization was brought home to
Forbes that the loss of these belongings was a very trifling matter.
By that time his feeling of reluctance to have the door opened had
entirely vanished. In his boyhood he had frequently played "crack the
whip." His sensations when the line of runners suddenly halted, and
he, a little fellow bringing up the rear, was sent sprawling over the
grass, were being duplicated in this memorable ride. The express was
playing "crack the whip" with himself as snapper. Once as the train
rounded a curve, both feet flew from under him, and the unexpected jerk
upon his arms almost broke his hold. He could hardly believe in his
good fortune when he found himself still standing on the step, holding
on literally for dear life. For now he knew that in his desperate
determination to see Agatha again, he had taken his life in his hands.

Oddly enough it was not the likelihood of a sudden and violent
death which presented itself most forcibly to his imagination.
The opportunities he had missed with Agatha were infinitely more
disturbing. If only he had spoken in her defense the day Julia had
exhausted her ingenuity in wounding and insulting the rival she
instinctively feared. But he had stood silent while Julia's malice
spent itself. And later when time had revealed the affair in a truer
perspective, if he had but gone to her and said to her all that was in
his heart, she might have been his wife by now. One inevitably gets
down to realities when life flickers like a candle in the wind, and
Forbes no longer debated the question of Agatha's love for him. In
addition to Warren's testimony, he had the memory of a kiss, a dream
kiss, pressed on his cheeks as he struggled back to consciousness after
the stormy interview with Hephzibah, a kiss salt with tears and sweet
with ineffable promise. Forbes heard his bitter laughter above the roar
of the train. "God!" his voice said, "what a mess I've made of things."

Forbes had never had a high opinion of the intelligence of that portion
of the traveling public which puts its head out of the window of a
moving train. Indeed he had always classified it with the people who
maim or kill their best friends by playful maneuvers with guns that
are not loaded. From this time on, his ideas on the subject were to be
revolutionized. He was destined to think of the above-named individuals
as philanthropists of a high order.

A man in the smoking-car, thrusting his head out of the window at a
time when the curving of the track brought the rear coach into full
view, made a discovery which he promptly imparted to the conductor.
That official, properly incredulous, extended his own head from the
window and verified the passenger's astonishing statement. And at the
moment when Forbes' imagination was busy with the gruesome details
relating to the discovery of his lifeless body lying beside the tracks,
the vestibule door suddenly opened and the face of indignant authority
looked down at him.

They dragged Forbes inside after unclenching his hands for him, his
stiffened muscles refusing that simple service. The conductor failing
to recognize in this disheveled individual with the unsteady knees,
the respectable passenger whose ticket he had punched earlier in the
trip, not unnaturally assumed that Forbes was drunk and acting on that
supposition, proceeded to make himself very disagreeable. As Forbes
regained his shaken dignity, and paid his fare, the man in uniform
became less truculent and in the end, positively congratulatory.

Forbes' grips were in the possession of an unknown porter at a station
some thirty miles back, and he made as satisfactory a toilet as was
possible without the aid of their contents, before returning to the
coach where lately he had devoted himself to entertaining Charlie
Briggs, unaware that the door of Paradise stood ajar just across the
aisle. Here disappointment awaited him. Agatha, having learned from
bitter experience that activity is the best of balms for a sore heart,
had resolved on washing the hands and faces of her charges and giving
their hair proper attention. To make the toilet of four children in
the limited accommodations of a Pullman, with the certainty that at
any moment the lurch of the train may precipitate you into the wash
basin, or through the hanging curtains out into the aisle, is a process
requiring time and patience. Forbes sat in his former place, biting his
lips for three-quarters of an hour before he saw the little procession
slowly making its way down the aisle.

Forbes' uncomfortable uncertainty as to whether he had made a fool of
himself or not, vanished at the sight of Agatha. Worn and weary as she
looked, her eyes still reddened from weeping, she had never seemed to
him so infinitely dear and desirable. Such trivial things as corrugated
palms and lost eye-glasses and a narrow escape from death, no longer
mattered.

Charlie Briggs was the first to discover him. "My man's come back," he
shouted jubilantly and ran into Forbes' arms. Agatha's eyes followed
him, and she stopped short, her flushed cheeks paling. For a moment
Forbes thought her about to faint and started to his feet to assist
her, but immediately she had regained her self-control and walked
steadily to her seat, though as a matter of fact she did not feel the
floor beneath her feet and was scarcely conscious of the child in her
arms. He had come back and intuition told her why.

Forbes rose and crossed the aisle. "Charlie," he said in a voice of
authority, "take your little sisters to my seat and play with them for
a while."

Charlie Briggs demurred.

"Run along," Forbes insisted. "And when I get a chance to buy you some
candy you shall have enough to make you sick for a month."

"Us too?" asked the curly-haired girl, ready to oppose any unfair
sex-discrimination.

"Yes, you, too," Forbes promised recklessly. "Enough so all three of
you will need a doctor."

It was not in human nature to resist such a bribe. The three crossed
immediately to the opposite section. Forbes took the seat at Agatha's
side.

A silence at once inevitable and ridiculous fell between them. There
was so much to be said that there seemed no rational starting point. He
wanted to ask what she was doing with all those children, but the query
seemed to put her on the defensive. She was longing to know how after
leaving the train, he could possibly be aboard again, but she left
the first move to him. Presently a mutual attraction drew their eyes
together and Forbes lost no more time.

"Have you had long enough," he said a trifle unsteadily, "to decide on
that proposition I made you nine months ago to a day?"

"I--I--What proposition do you mean?"

"That we should set up housekeeping together?"

Agatha seemed trying to remember. "Wasn't that for last winter only?"

"No. It's for this summer and next winter and for all the summers and
winters that ever will be."

She regarded him amazedly. "You're not--you can't be--"

"But I am, exactly that. Will you marry me, Agatha?"

"Listen!" A little flutter of laughter escaped her and he loved the
sound of it. "Do you realize those are the first words you've ever
spoken to me--the real _me_, that we've just been introduced? Of
course we had any number of good talks when I was Great-aunt Agatha
Kent."

"Bless her dear heart!" Forbes interjected gratefully.

"And we had one rather exciting interview when I was Hephzibah."

"Yes, I have reason to remember that interview." He looked at her
meaningly and gloated over her blush.

"And now I'm just Agatha," she went on bravely, ignoring her scarlet
cheeks. "And the very first words you say to me are to ask me to marry
you."

"And they're the words I shall keep saying till you promise."

She shot him a side-long glance. "But what--what about Julia?"

"She was married early in January. They have been spending the winter
in Palm Beach, I understand."

"Oh!" There was such compassion in her voice, such pitying tenderness
in her eyes that she had a narrow escape from being kissed on the spot.

He compromised by taking her hand. "Listen, dear girl. Let's clear this
thing up once for all. I've had a narrow escape. The Julia I loved was
no more real than your Hephzibah. I knew my mistake that day when she
attacked you at Oak Knoll. The cruelty of it was a revelation. I can't
understand now why I listened without protest, but you must remember
that I had received a staggering surprise."

"Staggering and cruel!" Her fingers tightened about his. "I tried so
hard to tell you everything that day in the woods and I was such a
coward that the words wouldn't come. How can you ever forgive me?"

"Hush, dear love! I shall shock this train-load of people if you are
not careful. I was too dazed and bewildered that first day to be quite
responsible for what I did or left undone. But within twenty-four hours
I spoke my mind so plainly as to terminate the friendship between Miss
Studley and myself. I have never seen nor heard from her since."

The look she turned on him made him hang his head. The certainty that
elates most men, humbles those of finer mold.

"Agatha, my dearest, you talk of my forgiving you. Can you ever forgive
me?"

The train was slowing for a stop before they had settled that delicate
question. Agatha argued that it was preposterous to talk of forgiving
one who in every relation of life was absolute perfection. Forbes
insisted that her attitude proved her an angel. The baby, with a
discretion beyond its years, refrained from offering any interruption
to this absorbing conversation, though occasionally its toothless gums
were revealed in what might have impressed the unprejudiced on-looker
as a derisive smile.

After the brief stop, a train boy appeared shouting Forbes' name. He
proved to be the bearer of a telegram from Warren. Forbes and Agatha
read it together:

 "If enough is left of you to make the marriage ceremony valid advise
 clenching matter at the first stop run no risk of letting her get away
 from us again."

"Warren seems to be laboring under the impression," frowned Forbes,
"that he comes in on this. Except for that slight error--"

Agatha interpolated irrelevantly that Warren was a dear.

"He's not half bad," Forbes admitted generously. "And apart from his
erroneous impression that this is a partnership affair, the message
impresses me favorably. What do you think?"

"How do you know," questioned Agatha interestedly, "that I'm not
already married to a widower with four small children?"

"I'll own the thought crossed my mind. But I wouldn't consider it. You
looked too sad for a bride."

Agatha put her hand into his quite shamelessly. "Of course I would look
sad if I had been so silly as to marry somebody else."

"Who are these children anyway?" Forbes asked, as if he had just
thought of it.

"Orphans. Orphans who are going to be adopted. The homes have been
investigated and they're all right. Now I'm going to leave the children
for a six months' trial, and if at the end of that time everybody is
satisfied, they will be legally adopted." Agatha added casually that
they would reach the baby's future home at five o'clock and that she
would be rather glad to get him off her hands before nightfall. Forbes
recalled a statement of Charlie Briggs much to the same effect, and was
man enough to apologize mentally to the youngster.

Agatha's next remark had to Forbes a delicious suggestion of wifely
authority. "Why aren't you wearing your glasses?"

He explained the fate of those cherished belongings and did his best to
make light of the whole affair. But Agatha was not to be deceived. Her
eyes widened to surprising proportions. Her face grew white.

"You might have been killed. It's a miracle you weren't killed."

His distress over the discovery that she was crying was spiced
with ecstasy. She interrupted his clumsy efforts at comfort with
self-accusation. "And if you had been killed, I would have been to
blame."

"Why, in heaven's name, dearest? My own folly would have been solely
responsible. But when I realized that I had actually spoken face to
face with you, and that you were escaping me again, I lost my head
completely."

"If I'd told you who I was, you wouldn't have had any reason to risk
your life. And so if anything had happened it would have been all my
fault."

He took a rather base advantage of her self-reproach. "I'll forgive you
on one condition. As I understand it, after you have made arrangements
about the baby you will spend the night at a hotel and take the train
to-morrow."

"Yes, that's my plan."

"And my plan is that you marry me to-morrow morning."

"I had intended," Agatha answered reflectively, "to take an eight
o'clock train."

"I suppose a later one will do."

"Very likely. But a wedding without a trousseau! I am equal to a
trousseau now, you know. I have--or did have a little while ago--a
fortune of twelve thousand dollars."

"I can't think," Forbes murmured, "of anything I should enjoy better
than helping to select a trousseau--a little later."

"You know I'm responsible for Miss Finch," Agatha said breathlessly.
"She's not going to be married after all."

"Miss Finch is a member of my family from now on."

"And Howard! It was all make-believe that he was a young friend of
mine. He's really my darling brother."

"And mine as soon as you say the word. Dear little Miss Proteus,"
cried Forbes with a laugh that did not disguise the tenderness of his
voice, "I'm afraid to let you out of my sight for fear you'll change
into something else, a mermaid or a fairy, and be lost to me forever."

"I'm sure it will disappoint Mrs. Van Horne if I come back with a
husband," mused Agatha. "It will seem such a childish performance. And
yet--when you've made up your mind that all that's left in life for
you is to go on doing your duty and trying to be kind to everybody,
and then happiness comes back and knocks at your door, you--you--oh,
Burton--it's not in human nature to keep her waiting."

After a party, consisting of a smiling gentleman, a radiant girl and
four tired children, had left the train, one of the people who always
know the details of everybody's business, sketched their history for
the benefit of the owner of the poodle.

"They had a dreadful quarrel, you know, the way young people will, and
she was going home to her father's. Somehow or other he learned what
train she was to take and got aboard just at the last minute."

The listener knitted blonde brows. "I didn't really feel sure the
woman was in her right mind. She made some absurd statement about those
two little girls. Said there was six months' difference in their ages."

"She was so excited she didn't know what she was saying," explained the
omniscient traveler. "He sent her messages by the little boy and when
she wouldn't pay any attention, he brought her to time by standing on
the steps of the rear coach for more than an hour. It was a wonder he
wasn't killed."

The stout blonde expressed the opinion that it was woman's place to
forgive.

"Well, that melted her, and you can't wonder. The porter in the rear
coach told our porter that when they dragged him aboard he hardly had
strength to stand on his feet. It didn't take them long to get things
fixed up after that. I went for a drink of water after they'd been
talking for half an hour or so, and he'd picked up the baby, and I'm
pretty sure from the way he held that child, he was using it just as a
screen and kissing the mother behind it."

"Awful fretful baby," commented the stout blonde. "I'm glad it won't be
on the train to-night."

"Looks as if they'd started out to have a real old-fashioned family,"
said the omniscient narrator. "None of the children looks like her but
the curly-haired girl and the boy are the image of their papa."





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