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"Hadn't I better feed de critters?"

"Ah, old man! own up, now; you've got a backache," said Minturn.

"Dere is kin' ob a crik comin' - "

"Drop work, all hands," cried Sue. "Mr. Minturn has a 'crik' also, but
he's too proud to own it. How you'll groan for this to-morrow, sir!"

"If you take that view of the case, I may be under the necessity of
giving proof positive to the contrary by coming out to-morrow."

"You're not half through yet. The hardest part is to come."

"Oh, I know that," he replied; and he gave her such a humorously
appealing glance that she turned quickly toward the house to hide a
conscious flush.

The farmer showed him to the spare-room, in which he found his
belongings. Left to make his toilet, he muttered, "Ah, better and
better! This is not the regulation refrigerator into which guests are
put at farmhouses. All needed for solid comfort is here, even to a
slight fire in the air-tight. Now, isn't that rosy old lady a jewel of
a mother-in-law? She knows that a warm man shouldn't get chilled just
as well as if she had studied athletics. Miss Sue, however, is a little
chilly. She's on the fence yet. Jupiter! I AM tired. Oh, well, I don't
believe I'll have seven years of this kind of thing. You were right,
though, old man, if your Rachel was like mine. What's that rustle in
the other room? She's dressing for dinner. So must I; and I'm ready for
it. If she has romantic ideas about love and lost appetites, I'm a
goner."

When he descended to the parlor, his old stylish self again, Sue was
there, robed in a gown which he had admired before, revealing the fact
to her by approving glances. But now he said, "You don't look half so
well as you did before."

"I can't say that of you," she replied.

"A man's looks are of no consequence."

"Few men think so."

"Oh, they try to please such critical eyes as I now am meeting."

"And throw dust in them too sometimes."

"Yes; gold dust, often. I haven't much of that."

"It would be a pity to throw it away if you had."

"No matter how much was thrown, I don't think it would blind you, Miss
Banning."

The dining-room door across the hall opened, and the host and hostess
appeared. "Why, father and mother, how fine you look!"

"It would be strange indeed if we did not honor this day," said Mrs.
Banning. "I hope you have not so tired yourself, sir, that you cannot
enjoy your dinner. I could scarcely believe my eyes as I watched you
from the window."

"I am afraid I shall astonish you still more at the table. I am simply
ravenous."

"This is your chance," cried Sue. "You are now to be paid in the coin
you asked for."

Sue did remark to herself by the time they reached dessert and coffee,
"I need have no scruples in refusing a man with such an appetite; he
won't pine. He is a lawyer, sure enough. He is just winning father and
mother hand over hand."

Indeed, the bosom of good Mrs. Banning must have been environed with
steel not to have had throbs of goodwill toward one who showed such
hearty appreciation of her capital dinner. But Sue became only the more
resolved that she was not going to yield so readily to this muscular
suitor who was digging and eating his way straight into the hearts of
her ancestors, and she proposed to be unusually elusive and alert
during the afternoon. She was a little surprised when he resumed his
old tactics.

After drinking a second cup of coffee, he rose, and said, "As an honest
man, I have still a great deal to do after such a dinner."

"Well, it has just done me good to see you," said Mrs. Banning, smiling
genially over her old-fashioned coffee-pot. "I feel highly
complimented."

"I doubt whether I shall be equal to another such compliment before the
next birthday. I hope, Miss Susie, you have observed my efforts to do
honor to the occasion?"

"Oh," cried the girl, "I naturally supposed you were trying to get even
in your bargain."

"I hope to be about sundown. I'll get into those overalls at once, and
I trust you will put on your walking-suit."

"Yes, it will be a walking-suit for a short time. We must walk to the
wood-lot for the trees, unless you prefer to ride. - Father, please tell
Hiram to get the two-horse wagon ready."

When the old people were left alone, the farmer said, "Well, mother,
Sue HAS got a suitor, and if he don't suit her - " And then his wit gave
out.

"There, father, I never thought you'd come to that. It's well she has,
for you will soon have to be taken care of."

"He's got the muscle to do it. He shall have my law-business, anyway."

"Thank the Lord, it isn't much; but that's not saying he shall have
Sue."

"Why, what have you against him?"

"Nothing so far. I was only finding out if you had anything against
him."

"Lawyers, indeed! What would become of the men if women turned lawyers.
Do you think Sue - "

"Hush!"

They all laughed till the tears came when Minturn again appeared
dressed for work; but he nonchalantly lighted a cigar and was entirely
at his ease.

Sue was armed with thick gloves and a pair of pruning-nippers. Minturn
threw a spade and pickaxe on his shoulder, and Mr. Banning, whom Sue
had warned threateningly "never to be far away," tramped at their side
as they went up the lane. Apparently there was no need of such
precaution, for the young man seemed wholly bent on getting up the
trees, most of which she had selected and marked during recent rambles.
She helped now vigorously, pulling on the young saplings as they
loosened the roots, then trimming them into shape. More than once,
however, she detected glances, and his thoughts were more flattering
than she imagined. "What vigor she has in that supple, rounded form!
Her very touch ought to put life into these trees; I know it would into
me. How young she looks in that comical old dress which barely reaches
her ankles! Yes, Hal Minturn; and remember, that trim little ankle can
put a firm foot down for or against you - so no blundering."

He began to be doubtful whether he would make his grand attack that
day, and finally decided against it, unless a very favorable
opportunity occurred, until her plan of birthday-work had been carried
out and he had fulfilled the obligation into which he had entered in
the morning. He labored on manfully, seconding all her wishes, and
taking much pains to get the young trees up with an abundance of
fibrous roots. At last his assiduity induced her to relent a little,
and she smiled sympathetically as she remarked, "I hope you are
enjoying yourself. Well, never mind; some other day you will fare
better."

"Why should I not enjoy myself?" he asked in well-feigned surprise.
"What condition of a good time is absent? Even an April day has
forgotten to be moody, and we are having unclouded, genial sunshine.
The air is delicious with springtime fragrance. Were ever hemlocks so
aromatic as these young fellows? They come out of the ground so readily
that one would think them aware of their proud destiny. Of course I'm
enjoying myself. Even the robins and sparrows know it, and are singing
as if possessed."

"Hadn't you better give up your law-office and turn farmer?"

"This isn't farming. This is embroidery-work."

"Well, if all these trees grow they will embroider the old place, won't
they?"

"They'll grow, every mother's son of 'em."

"What makes you so confident?"

"I'm not confident. That's where you are mistaken." And he gave her
such a direct, keen look that she suddenly found something to do
elsewhere.

"I declare!" she exclaimed mentally, "he seems to read my very
thoughts."

At last the wagon was loaded with trees enough to occupy the holes
which had been dug, and they started for the vicinity of the farmhouse
again. Mr. Banning had no match-making proclivities where Sue was
concerned, as may be well understood, and had never been far off.
Minturn, however, had appeared so single-minded in his work, so
innocent of all designs upon his daughter, that the old man began to
think that this day's performance was only a tentative and preliminary
skirmish, and that if there were danger it lurked in the unknown
future. He was therefore inclined to be less vigilant, reasoning
philosophically, "I suppose it's got to come some time or other. It
looks as if Sue might go a good deal further than this young man and
fare worse. But then she's only eighteen, and he knows it. I guess he's
got sense enough not to plant his corn till the sun's higher. He can
see with half an eye that my little girl isn't ready to drop, like an
over-ripe apple." Thus mixing metaphors and many thoughts, he hurried
ahead to open the gate for Hiram.

"I'm in for it now," thought Sue, and she instinctively assumed an
indifferent expression and talked volubly of trees.

"Yes, Miss Banning," he said formally, "by the time your hair is tinged
with gray the results of this day's labor will be seen far and wide. No
passenger in the cars, no traveller in the valley, but will turn his
eyes admiringly in this direction."

"I wasn't thinking of travellers," she answered, "but of making an
attractive home in which I can grow old contentedly. Some day when you
have become a gray-haired and very dignified judge you may come out and
dine with us again. You can then smoke your cigar under a tree which
you helped to plant."

"Certainly, Miss Banning. With such a prospect, how could you doubt
that I was enjoying myself? What suggested the judge? My present
appearance?"

The incongruity of the idea with his absurd aspect and a certain degree
of nervousness set her off again, and she startled the robins by a
laugh as loud and clear as their wild notes.

"I don't care," she cried. "I've had a jolly birthday, and am
accomplishing all on which I had set my heart."

"Yes, and a great deal more, Miss Banning," he replied with a formal
bow. "In all your scheming you hadn't set your heart on my coming out
and - does modesty permit me to say it? - helping a little."

"Now, you HAVE helped wonderfully, and you must not think I don't
appreciate it."

"Ah, how richly I am rewarded!"

She looked at him with a laughing and perplexed little frown, but only
said, "No irony, sir."

By this time they had joined her father and begun to set out the row of
hemlocks. To her surprise, Sue had found herself a little disappointed
that he had not availed himself of his one opportunity to be at least
"a bit friendly" as she phrased it. It was mortifying to a girl to be
expecting "something awkward to meet" and nothing of the kind take
place. "After all," she thought, "perhaps he came out just for a lark,
or, worse still, is amusing himself at my expense; or he may have come
on an exploring expedition and plain old father and mother, and the
plain little farmhouse, have satisfied him. Well, the dinner wasn't
very plain, but he may have been laughing in his sleeve at our lack of
style in serving it. Then this old dress! I probably appear to him a
perfect guy." And she began to hate it, and devoted it to the rag-bag
the moment she could get it off.

This line of thought, once begun, seemed so rational that she wondered
it had not occurred to her before. "The idea of my being so
ridiculously on the defensive!" she thought. "No, it wasn't ridiculous
either, as far as my action went, for he can never say I ACTED as if I
wanted him to speak. My conceit in expecting him to speak the moment he
got a chance WAS absurd. He has begun to be very polite and formal.
That's always the way with men when they want to back out of anything.
He came out to look us over, and me in particular; he made himself into
a scarecrow just because I looked like one, and now will go home and
laugh it all over with his city friends. Oh, why did he come and spoil
my day? Even he said it WAS my day, and he has done a mean thing in
spoiling it. Well, he may not carry as much self-complacency back to
town as he thinks he will. Such a cold-blooded spirit, too! - to come
upon us unawares in order to spy out everything, for fear he might get
taken in! You were very attentive and flattering in the city, sir, but
now you are disenchanted. Well, so am I."

Under the influence of this train of thought she grew more and more
silent. The sun was sinking westward in undimmed splendor, but her face
was clouded. The air was sweet, balmy, well adapted to sentiment and
the setting out of trees, but she was growing frosty.

"Hiram," she said shortly, "you've got that oak crooked; let me hold
it." And thereafter she held the trees for the old colored man as he
filled in the earth around them.

Minturn appeared as oblivious as he was keenly observant. At first the
change in Sue puzzled and discouraged him; then, as his acute mind
sought her motives, a rosy light began to dawn upon him. "I may be
wrong," he thought, "but I'll take my chances in acting as if I were
right before I go home."

At last Hiram said: "Reckon I'll have to feed de critters again;" and
he slouched off.

Sue nipped at the young trees further and further away from the young
man who must "play spy before being lover." The spy helped Mr. Banning
set out the last tree. Meantime, the complacent farmer had mused: "The
little girl's safe for another while, anyhow. Never saw her more
offish; but things looked squally about dinner-time. Then, she's only
eighteen; time enough years hence." At last he said affably, "I'll go
in and hasten supper, for you've earned it if ever a man did, Mr.
Minturn. Then I'll drive you down to the evening train." And he hurried
away.

Sue's back was toward them, and she did not hear Minturn's step until
he was close beside her. "All through," he said; "every tree out. I
congratulate you; for rarely in this vale of tears are plans and hopes
crowned with better success."

"Oh, yes," she hastened to reply; "I am more than satisfied. I hope
that you are too."

"I have no reason to complain," he said. "You have stood by your
morning's bargain, as I have tried to."

"It was your own fault, Mr. Minturn, that it was so one-sided. But I've
no doubt you enjoy spicing your city life with a little lark in the
country."

"It WAS a one-sided bargain, and I have had the best of it."

"Perhaps you have," she admitted. "I think supper will be ready by the
time we are ready for it." And she turned toward the house. Then she
added, "You must be weary and anxious to get away."

"You were right; my bones DO ache. And look at my hands. I know you'll
say they need washing; but count the blisters."

"I also said, Mr. Minturn, that you would know better next time. So you
see I was right then and am right now."

"Are you perfectly sure?"

"I see no reason to think otherwise." In turning, she had faced a young
sugar-maple which he had aided her in planting early in the afternoon.
Now she snipped at it nervously with her pruning-shears, for he would
not budge, and she felt it scarcely polite to leave him.

"Well," he resumed, after an instant, "it has a good look, hasn't it,
for a man to fulfil an obligation literally?"

"Certainly, Mr. Minturn," and there was a tremor in her tone; "but you
have done a hundred-fold more than I expected, and never were under any
obligations."

"Then I am free to begin again?"

"You are as free now as you have been all day to do what you please."
And her shears were closing on the main stem of the maple. He caught
and stayed her hand. "I don't care!" she cried almost passionately.
"Come, let us go in and end this foolish talk."

"But I do care," he replied, taking the shears from her, yet retaining
her hand in his strong grasp. "I helped you plant this tree, and
whenever you see it, whenever you care for it, when, in time, you sit
under its shade or wonder at its autumn hues, I wish you to remember
that I told you of my love beside it. Dear little girl, do you think I
am such a blind fool that I could spend this long day with you at your
home and not feel sorry that I must ever go away? If I could, my very
touch should turn the sap of this maple into vinegar. To-day I've only
tried to show how I can work for you. I am eager to begin again, and
for life."

At first Sue had tried to withdraw her hand, but its tenseness relaxed.
As he spoke, she turned her averted face slowly toward him, and the
rays of the setting sun flashed a deeper crimson into her cheeks. Her
honest eyes looked into his and were satisfied. Then she suddenly
gathered the young tree against her heart and kissed the stem she had
so nearly severed. "This maple is witness to what you've said," she
faltered. "Ah! but it will be a sugar-maple in truth; and if petting
will make it live - there, now! behave! The idea! right out on this bare
lawn! You must wait till the screening evergreens grow before - Oh, you
audacious - I haven't promised anything."

"I promise everything. I'm engaged, and only taking my retaining-fees."

"Mother," cried Farmer Banning at the dining-room window, "just look
yonder!"

"And do you mean to say, John Banning, that you didn't expect it?"

"Why, Sue was growing more and more offish."

"Of course! Don't you remember?"

"Oh, this unlucky birthday! As if trees could take Sue's place!"

"Yah!" chuckled Hiram from the barn door, "I knowed dat ar gem'lin was
a-diggin' a hole fer hisself on dis farm."

"Mr. Minturn - " Sue began as they came toward the house arm in arm.

"Hal - " he interrupted.

"Well, then, Mr. Hal, you must promise me one thing in dead earnest.
I'm the only chick father and mother have. You must be very considerate
of them, and let me give them as much of my time as I can. This is all
that I stipulate; but this I do."

"Sue," he said in mock solemnity, "the prospects are that you'll be a
widow."

"Why do you make such an absurd remark?"

"Because you have struck amidships the commandment with the promise,
and your days will be long in the land. You'll outlive everybody."

"This will be no joke for father and mother."

So it would appear. They sat in the parlor as if waiting for the world
to come to an end - as indeed it had, one phase of it, to them. Their
little girl, in a sense, was theirs no longer.

"Father, mother," said Sue, demurely, "I must break some news to you."

"It's broken already," began Mrs. Banning, putting her handkerchief to
her eyes.

Sue's glance renewed her reproaches for the scene on the lawn; but
Minturn went promptly forward, and throwing his arm around the matron's
plump shoulders, gave his first filial kiss.

"Come, mother," he said, "Sue has thought of you both; and I've given
her a big promise that I won't take any more of her away than I can
help. And you, sir," wringing the farmer's hand, "will often see a city
tramp here who will be glad to work for his dinner. These overalls are
my witness."

Then they became conscious of his absurd figure, and the scene ended in
laughter that was near akin to tears.

The maple lived, you may rest assured; and Sue's children said there
never was such sugar as the sap of that tree yielded.

All the hemlocks, oaks, and dogwood thrived as if conscious that theirs
had been no ordinary transplanting; while Minturn's half-jesting
prophecy concerning the travellers in the valley was amply fulfilled.






AN UNEXPECTED RESULT


"Jack, she played with me deliberately, heartlessly. I can never
forgive her."

"In that case, Will, I congratulate you. Such a girl isn't worth a
second thought, and you've made a happy escape."

"No congratulations, if you please. You can talk coolly, because in
regard to such matters you are cool, and, I may add, a trifle cold.
Ambition is your mistress, and a musty law-book has more attractions
for you than any woman living. I'm not so tempered. I am subject to the
general law of nature, and a woman's love and sympathy are essential to
success in my life and work."

"That's all right; but there are as good fish - "

"Oh, have done with your trite nonsense," interrupted Will Munson,
impatiently. "I'd consult you on a point of law in preference to most
of the gray-beards, but I was a fool to speak of this affair. And yet
as my most intimate friend - "

"Come, Will, I'm not unfeeling;" and John Ackland rose and put his hand
on his friend's shoulder. "I admit that the subject is remote from my
line of thought and wholly beyond my experience. If the affair is so
serious I shall take it to heart."

"Serious! Is it a slight thing to be crippled for life?"

"Oh, come, now," said Ackland, giving his friend a hearty and
encouraging thump, "you are sound in mind and limb; what matters a
scratch on the heart to a man not twenty-five?"

"Very well; I'll say no more about it. When I need a lawyer I'll come
to you. Good-by; I sail for Brazil in the morning."

"Will, sit down and look me in the eyes," said Ackland, decisively.
"Will, forgive me. You are in trouble. A man's eyes usually tell me
more than all his words, and I don't like the expression of yours.
There is yellow fever in Brazil."

"I know it," was the careless reply.

"What excuse have you for going?"

"Business complications have arisen there, and I promptly volunteered
to go. My employers were kind enough to hesitate and warn me, and to
say that they could send a man less valuable to them, but I soon
overcame their objections."

"That is your excuse for going. The reason I see in your eyes. You are
reckless, Will."

"I have reason to be."

"I can't agree with you, but I feel for you all the same. Tell me all
about it, for this is sad news to me. I had hoped to join you on the
beach in a few days, and to spend August with you and my cousin. I
confess I am beginning to feel exceedingly vindictive toward this
pretty little monster, and if any harm comes to you I shall be savage
enough to scalp her."

"The harm has come already, Jack. I'm hit hard. She showed me a mirage
of happiness that has made my present world a desert. I am reckless;
I'm desperate. You may think it is weak and unmanly, but you don't know
anything about it. Time or the fever may cure me, but now I am bankrupt
in all that gives value to life. A woman with an art so consummate that
it seemed artless, deliberately evoked the best there was in me, then
threw it away as indifferently as a cast-off glove."

"Tell me how it came about."

"How can I tell you? How can I in cold blood recall glances, words,
intonations, the pressure of a hand that seemed alive with reciprocal
feeling? In addition to her beauty she had the irresistible charm of
fascination. I was wary at first, but she angled for me with a skill
that would have disarmed any man who did not believe in the inherent
falseness of woman. The children in the house idolized her, and I have
great faith in a child's intuitions."

"Oh, that was only a part of her guile," said Ackland, frowningly.

"Probably; at any rate she has taken all the color and zest out of my
life. I wish some one could pay her back in her own coin. I don't
suppose she has a heart; but I wish her vanity might be wounded in a
way that would teach her a lesson never to be forgotten."

"It certainly would be a well-deserved retribution," said Ackland,
musingly.

"Jack, you are the one, of all the world, to administer the punishment.
I don't believe a woman's smiles ever quickened your pulse one beat."

"You are right, Will, it is my cold-bloodedness - to put your thought in
plain English - that will prove your best ally."

"I only hope that I am not leading you into danger. You will need an
Indian's stoicism."

"Bah! I may fail ignominiously, and find her vanity invulnerable, but I
pledge you my word that I will avenge you if it be within the compass
of my skill. My cousin, Mrs. Alston, may prove a useful ally. I think
you wrote me that the name of this siren was Eva Van Tyne?"

"Yes; I only wish she had the rudiments of a heart, so that she might
feel in a faint, far-off way a little of the pain she has inflicted on
me. Don't let her make you falter or grow remorseful, Jack. Remember
that you have given a pledge to one who may be dead before you can
fulfil it."

Ackland said farewell to his friend with the fear that he might never
see him again, and a few days later found himself at a New England
seaside resort, with a relentless purpose lurking in his dark eyes.
Mrs. Alston did unconsciously prove a useful ally, for her wealth and
elegance gave her unusual prestige in the house, and in joining her
party Ackland achieved immediately all the social recognition he
desired.

While strolling with this lady on the piazza he observed the object of
his quest, and was at once compelled to make more allowance than he had


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Online LibraryEdward Payson RoeTaken Alive → online text (page 14 of 26)