Gouverneur Morris.

The seven Darlings, by Gouverneur Morris; online

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honesty down there. I don't even have to lock my door at night."

"That's because the lock's broken and you've always kept it shut with a
keg of nails. There are more pickpockets in New York than in Charleston,
but only because there are more pockets to pick."

"I don't get you," said Jonstone stiffly. A little later he did.

The culprit was asked his name by a formidable desk sergeant.

"Stephen Breckenridge."

Bob Jonstone gasped.

"Where do you come from?"

"Lexington, Kentucky."

Colonel Meredith let forth a howl of laughter. And after he had been
frowned into decorum by the sergeant, he continued for a long time to
look as if he was going to burst.

For some hours Mr. Jonstone was moody and unamused. Then suddenly he
broke into a winning smile.

"Mel," he said, "I wouldn't have minded so much if he had been smart
enough to get my money. It was bad finding out that he was a compatriot
of ours, but much more to realize that he was a fool."




XX


Mr. Langham was consulted about everything. And it was to him that Maud
Darling took Meredith's letter asking for accommodations.

"We've only two rooms left," she said, "and such nice people have come,
or are coming, that it would be an awful pity if we had the bad luck to
fill up with two men that weren't nice. Did you ever hear of a Colonel
Meredith?"

"Is that his letter? May I look?"

Mr. Langham read the letter through very carefully. Then he said,
looking at her over the tops of his thick glasses:

"I don't know if you know it, but I have made quite a study of
handwritings. The writer of this letter is a gentleman - a Southern
gentleman, if I am not mistaken. Accepting this premise, we may assume
that his friend Mr. Robert Middleton Jonstone is also a Southern
gentleman. Middleton, in fact, is pure South Carolinian."

"But if they are from South Carolina, wouldn't our terms stagger them?
I've always understood that Southern gentlemen lost all their money in
the war."

"Nevertheless," said Mr. Langham, "this is the writing of a rich man."

"How _can_ you know that?"

"I tell you that I have made a study of handwriting. It is also the
writing of a horse-loving, war-loving, much-travelled man - in the late
twenties."

"You will tell me next that he is about five feet ten inches tall, has
blue eyes, and is handsome as an angel."

"You take the words out of my mouth, Miss Maud."

"Tell me more." She was laughing now.

"He is very handsome, but not as angels are - his eyes are too bold and
roving. If he wasn't a good man he would be a very bad man. There was a
time, even, when strong drink appealed to him. He is quixotically brave
and generous. And I should by all means advise you to let him have his
accommodations."

"I can never tell when you are joking."

"I was never more serious in my life. Shall I tell you something else
that I have deduced?"

"Please."

"Well, then, he isn't married, Miss Maud, and he is a great catch!"

Miss Maud blushed a trifle.

"I don't know if you know it," she said, "but I have made a profound
study of palmistry. Will you lend me your hand a moment?"

"Very willingly. And I don't care if some one were to see us."

She studied his palm with great sternness.

"I read here," she said, "with regret, that you are an outrageous flirt.
It seems also that you are something of a fraud."

"One more calumny," exclaimed Mr. Langham, "and I withdraw my hand with
a gesture of supreme indignation."

But she held him very tightly by the fingers.

"And this little line," she cried, "tells me that you have known Colonel
Meredith intimately for years and that you never studied handwriting in
all your born days."

Mr. Langham began to chuckle all over.

"The next time," he said, "that people tell me you are easily imposed
on, I shall deny it."

"You _do_ know him?"

He blinked and nodded like a wise owl.

"Shall I write or telegraph?"

"You will use your own judgment."

So she did both. She wrote out a telegram and sent it to Carrytown in
the _Streak_. And she tried to picture in her mind a young man who
should look like an angel if his eyes weren't too bold and roving.

Her sisters and her brother all proclaimed that Maud was a really
sensible person. But none of them knew how really sensible she was.

She was, for instance, more interested in Colonel Meredith than in his
cousin Mr. Jonstone, and for the simple reason that she knew the one to
be rich and handsome and knew nothing whatever about the other.




XXI


Mr. Langham was at the float to welcome the two Carolinians.

"You have," he complimented Colonel Meredith, "once more proved the
ability to land on your feet in a soft spot. You will be more
comfortable here, better fed, better laundered than anywhere else in the
world."

As they strolled from the float to the office, Mr. Jonstone looked about
him a little uneasily. Not one of the beautiful girls who had looked
into his eyes from the page of _The Four Seasons_ was in sight, or,
indeed, any girl, woman, or female of any sort whatever. He had led
himself to expect a resort crowded with rustling and starchy boarders.
He found himself, instead, in a primeval pine forest in which were
sheltered many low, austere buildings of logs, above whose great
chimneys stood vertical columns of pale smoke. It was not yet dusk, but
the air among the long shadows had an icy quality and was heavily
charged with the odor of balsam. It was difficult to believe the season
summer, and Mr. Jonstone was reminded of December evenings in the
Carolinas.

"This is the office," said Mr. Langham, and he ushered them into the
presence of a bright birch fire and Maud Darling. Each of the
Carolinians drew a quick breath and bowed as if before royalty. Mr.
Langham presented them to Miss Darling. She begged them to write their
names in the guest book and to warm themselves at the fire.

"And then," said Sam Langham, "I'll shake them up a cocktail and show
them their house."

"Are we to have a whole house to ourselves?" asked Colonel Meredith. He
had not yet taken his eyes from Maud Darling's face.

"It's only two rooms: bath, parlor, and piazza," she explained.

"That last?" asked Mr. Jonstone.

"It's the same thing as a 'poach,'" explained Mr. Langham with a sly
twinkle in his eyes.

"It's to sit on and enjoy the view from," added Maud.

"But I don't want to admire the view," complained Colonel Meredith. "I
want to lounge about the office. It's the prerogative of every American
citizen to lounge about the office of his hotel."

Colonel Meredith had yet to take his eyes from Maud Darling's face. And
it was with protest written all over it that he at length followed his
cousin and Mr. Langham into the open air.

The three were presently sampling a cocktail of the latter's shaking in
the latter's snug little house, and speech was loosened in their mouths.

"Darling, _père_," explained Sam Langham, "went broke. He used to run
this place as it is run now, with this difference: that in the old days
he put up the money, while now it is the guests who pay. Two years ago
the Miss Darling you just met was one of the greatest heiresses in
America; now she keeps books and makes out bills."

"And are there truly five others equally lovely?" asked Colonel
Meredith.

"Some people think that the oldest of the six is also the loveliest,"
said Sam Langham, loyal to the choice of his own heart. "But they are
all very lovely."

To the Carolinians, warmed by Langham's cocktail, it seemed pitiful that
six beautiful girls who had had so much should now have so little. And
with a little encouragement they would have been moved to the expression
of exaggerated sentiments. It was Maud, however, and not the others,
who had aroused these feelings in their breasts. The desire to benefit
her by some secret action - and then to be found out - was very strong in
them both.

Langham left them after a time and they began to dress for dinner.
Usually they had a great deal to say to each other; often they disputed
and were gorgeously insolent to each other about the most trifling
things, but on the present occasion their one desire was to dress as
rapidly as possible and to visit the office upon some pretext or other.

When Colonel Meredith from the engulfment of a starched shirt announced
that he had several letters to write and wondered where one could buy
postage-stamps, it afforded Bob Jonstone malicious satisfaction to
inform him that the "little drawer in their writing-table contained not
only plenty of twos but fives and a strip of special deliveries."

"All I have to think about," said he, "is my laundry. I suppose they can
tell me at the office."

"_They?_" exclaimed Colonel Meredith.

As he spoke the collar button sprang like a slippery cherry-stone from
between his thumb and forefinger, fell in the exact middle of the room
in a perfectly bare place, and disappeared. Up to this moment the
cousins had remained on even terms in the race to be dressed first. But
now Mr. Jonstone gained and, before the collar button was found, had
given a parting "slick" to his hair and gone out.

It was now dark, and the woodland streets of The Camp were lighted by
lanterns. Windows were bright-yellow rectangles. A wind had risen and
the lake could be heard slapping against the rocky shore.

Maud Darling had left the office long enough to change from tailor-made
tweeds to the simplest white muslin. She was adding up a column in a fat
book. She looked golden in the firelight and the lamplight, and
resembled some heavenly being but for the fact that, for the moment, she
was puzzled to discover the sum of seven and five and was biting the end
of her pencil. The divine muse of Inspiration lives in the "other" ends
of pens and pencils. The world owes many of its masterpieces of
literature and invention to reflective nibbling at these instruments,
and if I were a teacher I should think twice before I told my pupils to
take their pencils out of their mouths.

Mr. Jonstone knocked on the open door of the office.

"This is the office," said Miss Maud Darling; "you don't have to knock.
Is anything not right?"

"Everything is absolutely perfect," bowed Mr. Jonstone. "But you are
busy. I could come again. I only wanted to ask about sending some things
to a laundry."

"You're not supposed to think about that," said Maud. "There is a
clothes-bag in the big closet in your bedroom and my sister Eve does the
rest."

"Oh, but I couldn't allow - - "

"Not with her own hands, of course; she merely oversees the laundry and
keeps it up to the mark. But if you like your things to be done in any
special way you must see her and explain."

"In my home," said Jonstone, "my old mammy does all the washing and most
everything else, and I wouldn't dare to find fault. She would follow me
up-stairs and down scolding all the time if I did. You see, though she
isn't a slave any more, she's never had any wages, and so she takes it
out in privileges and prerogatives."

"No wages ever since the Civil War!" exclaimed Maud.

"We had to have servants," he explained, "and until the other day there
was never any money to pay them with. We had nothing but the plantation
and the family silver."

"And of course you couldn't part with that. In the North when we get
hard up we sell anything we've got. But in the South you don't, and I've
always admired that trait in you beyond measure."

"In that case," said Mr. Jonstone, turning a little pale, "it is my duty
to tell you that the other day I parted with my silver in exchange for a
large sum of money. I made up my mind that I had only one life to live
and that I was sick of being poor."

Maud smiled.

"If you want to keep your ill-gotten gains," she said, "you ought never
to have come to this place. Wasn't there some kind friend to tell you
that our prices are absolutely prohibitive? We haven't gone into
business for fun but with the intention of making money hand over fist.
It's only fair to warn you."

She imagined that, at the outside, he might have received a couple of
thousand dollars for his family silver, and it seemed wicked that he
should be allowed to part with this little capital for food, lodging,
and a little trout-fishing.

"My silver," he said, "turned out to be worth a lot of money, and I have
put it all in trust for myself, so that my wife and children shall never
want."

A flicker of disappointment appeared in Maud Darling's eyes.

"But I didn't know you were married," she said lamely.

"Oh, I'm not - yet!" he exclaimed joyfully. "But I mean to be."

"Engaged?" she asked.

"Hope to be - mean to be," he confessed.

And at this moment Colonel Melville Meredith came in out of the night.
Having bowed very low to Miss Darling, he turned to his cousin.

"Did Langham find you?" he asked.

"No."

"Well, he's a-waiting at our house. I said I thought you'd be right
back."

"Then we - " began Jonstone.

"Not we - _you_," said his cousin, malice in his eyes. "I want to ask
Miss Darling some questions about telegrams and special messages by
telephone."

Bob Jonstone withdrew himself with the utmost reluctance.

"We have a telephone that connects us with the telegraph office at
Carrytown," Maud began, but Colonel Meredith interrupted almost rudely.

"We engaged our rooms for ten days only," he said, "but I want to keep
them for the rest of the summer. Please don't tell me that they are
promised to some one else."

"But they are," said she; "I'm very sorry."

"Can't you possibly keep us?"

She shook her fine head less in negation than reflection.

"I don't see how," she said finally, "unless some one gives out at the
last minute. There are just so many rooms and just so many applicants."

"How long," he asked, "would it take to build a little house for my
cousin and me?"

"If we got all the carpenters from Carrytown," said Maud, "it could be
done very quickly. But - - "

"Now you are going to make some other objection!"

"I was only going to say that if you wanted to go camping for a few
weeks, we could supply you with everything needful. We have first-rate
tents for just that sort of thing."

"But we don't want to go camping. We want to stay here."

"Exactly. There is no reason why you shouldn't pitch your tent in the
main street of this camp and live in it."

"That's just what we'll do," said Colonel Meredith, "and to-morrow we'll
pick out the site for the tent - if you'll help us."




XXII


Early the next morning Colonel Meredith and his cousin Bob Jonstone
presented themselves at the office dressed for walking. Butter would not
have melted in their mouths.

"Can you come now and help us pick out a site for the tent?" asked the
youthful colonel.

Maud was rather busy that morning, but she closed her ledger, selected a
walking-stick, and smiled her willingness to aid them.

"It will seem more like real camping-out," said Mr. Jonstone, "if we
don't pitch our tent right in the midst of things. Suppose we take a
boat and row along the shores of the lake, keeping our eyes peeled."

Maud was not averse to going for a row with two handsome and agreeable
young men. They selected a guide boat and insisted on helping her in and
cautioning her about sitting in the middle. Maud had almost literally
been brought up in a guide boat, but she only smiled discreetly. The
cousins matched for places. As Maud sat in the stern with a paddle for
steering, Colonel Meredith, who won the toss, elected to row stroke. Bob
Jonstone climbed with gingerness and melancholy into the bow. Not only
was he a long way from that beautiful girl, but Meredith's head and
shoulders almost completely blanketed his view of her.

"We ought to row English style," he said.

"What is English style, and why ought we to row that way?"

"In the American shells," explained Jonstone, "the men sit in the
middle. In the English shells each man sits as far from his rowlock as
possible."

"Why?" asked Meredith, who understood his cousin's predicament
perfectly.

"So's to get more leverage," explained Jonstone darkly.

"It's for Miss Darling to say," said Meredith. "Which style do you
prefer, Miss Darling, English or American?"

"I think the American will be more comfortable for you both and safer
for us all," said she.

"There!" exclaimed the man of war, "what did I tell you?"

"But - " continued Maud.

"I could have told you there would be a 'but,'" interrupted Jonstone
triumphantly.

"But," repeated Maud, "I'm coxswain, and I want to see what every man in
my boat is doing."

So they rowed English style.

"It's like a dinner-party," explained Maud to Colonel Meredith, who
appeared slightly discomforted. "Don't you know how annoying it is when
there's a tall centrepiece and you can't see who's across the table from
you?"

"Even if you don't want to look at him when you have found out who he
is," agreed Meredith. "Exactly."

They came to a bold headland of granite crowned with a half-dozen old
pines that leaned waterward.

"That's rather a wonderful site, I think," said Maud.

"Where?" said the gentlemen, turning to look over their shoulders. Then,
"It looks well enough from the water," said Jonstone, "but we ought not
to choose wildly."

"Let us land," said Colonel Meredith, "and explore."

They landed and began at once to find reasons for pitching the tent on
the promontory and reasons for not pitching it.

"The site is open and airy," said Jonstone.

"It is," said Colonel Meredith. "But, in case of a southwest gale, our
tent would be blown inside out."

A moment later, "How about drinking-water?" asked the experienced
military man.

"I regret to say that I have just stepped into a likely spring," said
Jonstone.

"We must sit down and wait till it clears."

When the spring once more bubbled clean and undefiled Mr. Jonstone
scooped up two palmfuls of water and drank.

"Delicious!" he cried.

Colonel Meredith then sampled the spring and shook his head darkly.

"This spring has a main attribute of drinking-water," he said; "it is
wet. Otherwise - - "

"What's the matter with my spring?" demanded his cousin.

"Silica, my dear fellow - silica. And you know very well that silica to a
man of your inherited tendencies spells gout."

Jonstone nodded gravely.

"I'm afraid that settles it." And he turned to Maud Darling. "I can keep
clear of gout," he explained, "only just as long as I keep my system
free from silica."

"Do you usually manage to?" asked Maud, very much puzzled.

"So far," he said, "I have _always_ managed to."

"Then you have never suffered from gout?"

"Never. But now, having drunk at this spring, I have reason to fear the
worst. It will take at least a week to get that one drink out of my
system."

And so they passed from the promontory with the pine-trees to a little
cove with a sandy beach, from this to a wooded island not much bigger
than a tennis-court. In every suggested site Jonstone found
multitudinous charms and advantages, while Colonel Meredith, from the
depths of his military experience, produced objections of the first
water. For to be as long as possible in the company of that beautiful
girl was the end which both sought.

Maud had gone upon the expedition in good faith, but when its true
object dawned upon her she was not in the least displeased. The very
obvious worship which the Carolinians had for her beauty was not so
personal as to make her uncomfortable. It was rather the worship of two
artists for art itself than for a particular masterpiece. Of the six
beautiful Darlings Maud had had the least experience of young men. She
was given to fits of shyness which passed with some as reserve, with
others as a kind of common-sense and matter-of-fact way of looking at
life. The triplets, young as they were, surpassed the other three in
conquests and experience. And this was not because they were more lovely
and more charming but because they had been a little spoiled by their
father and brought into the limelight before their time. Furthermore,
with the exception of Phyllis, perhaps, they were maidens of action to
whom there was no recourse in books or reflection. Such accomplishments
as drawing and music had not been forced upon them. They could not have
made a living teaching school. But Lee and Gay certainly could have
taught the young idea how to shoot, how to throw a fly, and how to come
in out of the wet when no house was handy. As for Phyllis, she would
have been as like them as one pea is like two others but for the fact
that at the age of two she had succeeded in letting off a 45-90 rifle
which some fool had left about loaded and had thereby frightened her
early sporting promises to death. But it was only of weapons, squirming
fish, boats, and thunder storms that she was shy. Young gentlemen had no
terrors for her, and she preferred the stupidest of these to the
cleverest of books.

Mary, Maud, and Eve had wasted a great part of their young lives upon
education. They could play the piano pretty well (you couldn't tell
which was playing); they sang charmingly; they knew French and German;
they could spell English, and even speak it correctly, a power which
they had sometimes found occasion to exercise when in the company of
foreign diplomatists. The change in their case from girlhood to young
womanhood had been sudden and prearranged: in each case a tremendous
ball upon a given date. The triplets had never "come out."

If Lee or Gay had been the victim of the present conspiracy, the
gentlemen from Carolina would have found their hands full and
overflowing. They would have been teased and misconstrued within an inch
of their lives; but Maud Darling was genuinely moved by the candor and
chivalry of their combined attentions. There was a genuine joyousness in
her heart, and she did not care whether they got her home in time for
lunch or not. And it was only a strong sense of duty which caused her to
point out the high position attained by the sun in the heavens.

With reluctance the trio gave up the hopeless search for a camp site and
started for home upon a long diagonal across the lake. It was just then,
as if a signal had been given, that the whole surface of the lake became
ruffled as when a piece of blue velvet is rubbed the wrong way, and a
strong wind began to blow in Maud's face and upon the backs of the
rowers.

Several hours of steady rowing had had its effect upon unaccustomed
hands. It was now necessary to pull strongly, and blisters grew swiftly
from small beginnings and burst in the palms of the Carolinians. Maud
came to their rescue with her steering paddle, but the wind, bent upon
having sport with them, sounded a higher note, and the guide boat no
longer seemed quick to the least propulsion and light on the water, but
as if blunt forward, high to the winds, and half full of stones. She did
not run between strokes but came to dead stops, and sometimes, during
strong gusts, actually appeared to lose ground.

The surface of the lake didn't as yet testify truly to the full strength
of the wind. But soon the little waves grew taller, the intervals
between them wider, and their crests began to be blown from them in
white spray. The heavens darkened more and more, and to the northeast
the sky-line was gradually blotted out as if by soft gray smoke.

"We're going to have rain," said Maud, "and we're going to have fog. So
we'd better hurry a little."

"Hurry?" thought the Carolinians sadly. And they redoubled their
efforts, with the result that they began to catch crabs.

"Some one ought to see us and send a launch," said Maud.

At that moment, as the wind flattens a field of wheat to the ground, the
waves bent and lay down before a veritable blast of black rain. It would
have taken more than human strength to hold the guide boat to her
course. Maud paddled desperately for a quarter of a minute and gave up.
The boat swung sharply on her keel, rocked dangerously, and, once more
light and sentient, a creature of life, made off bounding before the
gale.

"We are very sorry," said the Carolinians, "but the skin is all off our
hands, and at the best we are indifferent boatmen."

"The point is this," said Maud: "Can you swim?"

"I can," said Colonel Meredith, "but I am extremely sorry to confess
that my cousin's aquatic education has been neglected. Where he lives
every pool contains crocodiles, leeches, snapping-turtles, and
water-moccasins, and the incentive to bathing for pleasure is slight."

"Don't worry about me," said Mr. Jonstone. "I can cling to the boat
until the millennium."


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