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- A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill - 5/51 -


early so she could go out with her sweetheart, and told me there wasn't any Santa Claus, so I wouldn't stay awake watching for him. I hate that woman to this day! I can remember the big, lonesome room, and the red curtains, and the crystal chandelier and the way I cried because there wasn't any Santa Claus, and because I didn't have a sweetheart!"

"Poor little chap! It was a mother you wanted."

"Perhaps. Sister was good to me. But she didn't understand me; she never has. She has always given me too much of everything, advice included."

"But since you have been grown, you've had lots of time to--to--take things into your own hands."

"Well, I did for a while. I managed to squeeze through the university, then I went into the shops and had a bully time for five months, but it made no end of a row! Sister felt that after all she had done for me, I oughtn't to go dead against her wishes, and I guess she was right. Then I went into the bank and was beginning to get the hang of things, when she had a nervous collapse and was ordered to Egypt for the winter. My brother-in-law couldn't take her, so he sent me."

"But you stayed longer than she did."

"Yes, I played around on the Riviera for a while."

"And you have been home, how long?"

"Three months. Honestly, I meant to buckle down to something right off, but Cropsie Decker got this offer to go to the Orient for the _Herald-Post_, and asked me to go along. I was keen about it until--until I came down here."

They were both silent for a while, watching a spider that was exploring Don's boot-lace.

"It all seems so footless now. What I want is a house of my own, a home, I mean. I never had much of that sort of thing--I'm not quite sure I knew what a home was until I saw Thornwood."

"Isn't it dear?" asked Miss Lady with a loving look over her shoulder at the old house silhouetted against the sky. "I could kiss every brick of it, I love it so."

"I wish I didn't have to go back to town tonight!" burst out Donald inconsequentially. "I wish I never had to go back to it!"

"Why?"

"Oh, for lots of reasons. I'm a different fellow down here in the country, with things to do, and the right sort of things to think about, and--and you! You see," he smiled without looking up, "I'm not much good in town."

"How do you mean?" asked Miss Lady, with disconcerting frankness.

Donald shrugged his broad shoulders: "Oh! I don't know. I get into things before I know it. This Eastern trip, now; it sounded great when I said I'd go, Cropsie is a regular bird, the best fellow in the world to go on such a lark with, but--"

Miss Lady shot a glance at the handsome, boyish, irresponsible face beside her.

"Don't go, Don!" she whispered impulsively; "stay here and buy your farm!"

"You mean it!" he demanded, seizing her hands. "You want me to stay?"

The blood surged into her cheeks, but she did not withdraw her hands. Into her eager, luminous eyes had leapt the response that had been held in abeyance all afternoon.

"If I stay," he pressed hotly, "if I settle down and behave myself, and make good, you'll promise me--"

"Jimpson!" thundered a familiar voice from the road. "That good-for- nothing, lazy nigger, why don't he come help me with these things? Jimpson!"

"I'll tell him, Dad!" called Miss Lady, springing from the hammock.

"But wait!" pleaded Donald, "just a minute. I've got to beat that storm to town, and tell Decker the trip is off. But I'll be back in the morning! Perhaps to breakfast. Oh, my darling, I am so happy! Say you love me! Say it!"

Old Mike stirred in his slumbers, then opened one eye. It was evidently time for him to take some action. When two young people are standing very close with clasped hands and love-lit eyes in the dim fragrance of an old garden, even a dog of a chaperon knows that it is time to interfere! With great presence of mind he discovered an imaginary squirrel in the hedge directly beside them, and set up such a furious barking that Miss Lady looked around and laughed. For a second she stood, her head thrown back, a teasing, half-shy, half- daring look on her face, then she dropped a swift kiss on the hand that clasped hers, and without a word went flying crimson-cheeked up the lilac-bordered path.

CHAPTER III

Donald Morley rode back to town through the coming storm, in that particular state of ecstasy that mortals are permitted to enjoy but once in a lifetime. Not that falling in love was a novel sensation; on the contrary a varied experience had made him agreeably familiar with all the symptoms. But this, he assured himself with passionate vehemence, was something altogether and absolutely different. Between now and that morning when he had idly ridden out to Wicker's in search of a farm, lay a sea as wide as Destiny!

There in the country he had unexpectedly come upon his fate and with characteristic impetuosity had pursued and overtaken it. Other girls may have stirred his heart, but it had remained for a wild little pagan of the woods to stir his soul. He had laid bare to her the most secret places of his being, had confessed his sins, and received absolution. From this time on the frivolities of youth lay behind him, and ambition sat upon his brow. He would cut out the trip to the Orient, buy a farm and settle down to work as if he hadn't a penny in the world. Once the Colonel was made to recognize his worth, the gates of Paradise would be open!

He thought of the home he would build for her, and the flowers that would encompass it, of the horses and dogs they would have and perhaps--The memory of her face as she clasped Chick in the road flashed over him, and he straightened his shoulders suddenly and smiled almost tremulously. Yes, he'd be worthy of her, from this time forward life should hold no higher privilege!

It was after seven o'clock by the time he reached the Junction, and heavy mutterings of thunder could be heard in the west.

"Does this street go through to the boulevard?" he asked of a man, pointing with his knobless whip.

The lank person addressed removed his weight from the telegraph pole that had supported it and sauntered forward. As he did so Donald recognized the red-headed umpire of the afternoon.

"No, sir, Captain," he said, "it do not. This here is Bean Alley. These city politicians has got their own way of running streets; they take a pencil you see and draw a line along the property of folks that can pay for streets. The balance of us sets in mud puddles." The man evidently found some difficulty in expressing himself without the assistance of profanity. There were blanks left between the words, which he supplied mentally with compressed lips and lifting of shaggy brows, that served as an effective substitute. His conversation printed would resemble these grammatical exercises, struggled with an early youth, in which "a----dog----attacked a----boy with a----stick."

But his suppressed eloquence was lost upon his hearer, for Donald had become absorbed in a theatrical poster, which represented a preternaturally slim young lady, poised on a champagne bottle, coyly surveying an admiring world through the extended fingers of a small black gloved hand. It was "La Florine," whose charms he had heard recounted times without number by Mr. Cropsie Decker.

This evening, the poster announced, "La Florine" would for the first time in any American city, perform her incomparable dance, "The Serpent of the Nile."

Don had consulted his watch, and made a lightning calculation as to the time in which he could get a bite of supper and reach the Gayety, before he remembered that he was a reformed character. Then he sternly withdrew his gaze from the lady who peeped through her fingers in the dusk, and brought it back to the red-headed person, who had continued his conversation with unbroken volubility.

"... and she says to me," he was concluding "'Mr. Flathers,' she says, 'it's a privelege to help such as you. A man what's been in the gutter times without number, and bore the awful horrors of delirium tremins four times and still can feel the stirrings of Christianity in his bosom.'"

Donald looked at him and laughed. Here was evidently a fellow sinner.

"So you've straightened up, have you? How does it feel?"

Mr. Flathers cast a sidelong glance upward as if to size up the handsome young gentleman on horseback.

"Mighty depressin'," he confessed, "with a thirst that's been accumulatin' for weeks and weeks, and a sick wife, and a adobted child that ain't spoke a word for seven years. But I'm restin' on the Lord. He well pervide."

"Oh, you'll get along!" said Don, feeling uncommonly lenient toward his fellow men. "Here's a dollar if that will help you out a bit."

"It will," said Mr. Flathers reassuringly; "it undoubtedly will. I got much to be thankful for, I know that. Fer instance I never was a poor relation! That's more than lots of men kin say! The fact are, there ain't airy one in my whole family connection what's got any more 'n I have!"


A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill - 5/51

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