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- The Argonauts of North Liberty - 2/19 -
stranger all her life, didn't mind the kind of stuff I talked to her. Rather encouraged it; and laughed--such a pretty little odd laugh, as if laughing wasn't in her usual line, either, and she didn't know how to manage it. Well, it ended in her slipping out at one end of the car when we arrived, while I was looking out for a cab for her at the other." He stopped to recover from a stronger gust of wind. "I--I thought it a good joke on me, and let the thing drop out of my mind, although, mind you, she'd promised to meet me a month afterwards at the same time and place. Well, when the day came I happened to be in Boston, and went to the station. Don't know why I went, for I didn't for a moment think she'd keep her appointment. First, I couldn't find her in the train, but after we'd started she came along out of some seat in the corner, prettier than ever, holding out her hand." He drew a long inspiration. "You can bet your life, Ned, I didn't let go that little hand the rest of the journey."
His passion, or what passed for it, seemed to impart its warmth to the vehicle, and even stirred the chilled pulses of the man beside him.
"Well, who and what was she?"
"Didn't find out; don't know now. For the first thing she made me promise was not to follow her, nor to try to know her name. In return she said she would meet me again on another train near Hartford. She did--and again and again--but always on the train for about an hour, going or coming. Then she missed an appointment. I was regularly cut up, I tell you, and swore as she hadn't kept her word, I wouldn't keep mine, and began to hunt for her. In the midst of it I saw her accidentally; no matter where; I followed her to--well, that's no matter to you, either. Enough that I saw her again--and, well, Ned, such is the influence of that girl over me that, by George! she made me make the same promise again!"
Blandford, a little disappointed at his friend's dogmatic suppression of certain material facts, shrugged his shoulders.
"If that's all your story," he said, "I must say I see no prospect of your reforming. It's the old thing over again, only this time you are evidently the victim. She's some designing creature who will have you if she hasn't already got you completely in her power."
"You don't know what you're talking about, Ned, and you'd better quit," returned Demorest, with cheerful authoritativeness. "I tell you that that's the sort of girl I'm going to marry, if I can, and settle down upon. You can make a memorandum of that, old man, if you like."
"Then I don't really see why you want to talk to ME about it. And if you are thinking that such a story would go down for a moment with Joan as an evidence of your reformation, you're completely out, Dick. Was that your idea?"
"Yes--and I can tell you, you're wrong again, Ned. You don't know anything about women. You do just as I say--do you understand?-- and don't interfere with your own wrong-headed opinions of what other people will think, and I'll take the risks of Mrs. Blandford giving me good advice. Your wife has got a heap more sense on these subjects than you have, you bet. You just tell her that I want to marry the girl and want her to help me--that I mean business, this time--and you'll see how quick she'll come down. That's all I want of you. Will you or won't you?"
With an outward expression of sceptical consideration and an inward suspicion of the peculiar force of this man's dogmatic insight, Blandford assented, with, I fear, the mental reservation of telling the story to his wife in his own way. He was surprised when his friend suddenly drew the horse up sharply, and after a moment's pause began to back him, cramp the wheels of the buggy and then skilfully, in the almost profound darkness, turn the vehicle and horse completely round to the opposite direction.
"Then you are not going over the bridge?" said Blandford.
Demorest made an imperative gesture of silence. The tumultuous rush and roar of swollen and rapid water came from the darkness behind them. "There's been another break-out somewhere, and I reckon the bridge has got all it can do to-night to keep itself out of water without taking us over. At least, as I promised to set you down at your wife's door inside of the hour, I don't propose to try." As the horse now travelled more easily with the wind behind him, Demorest, dismissing abruptly all other subjects, laid his hand with brusque familiarity on his companion's knee, and as if the hour for social and confidential greeting had only just then arrived, said: "Well, Neddy, old boy, how are you getting on?"
"So, so," said Blandford, dubiously. "You see," he began, argumentatively, "in my business there's a good deal of competition, and I was only saying this morning--"
But either Demorest was already familiar with his friend's arguments, or had as usual exhausted his topic, for without paying the slightest attention to him, he again demanded abruptly, "Why don't you go to California? Here everything's played out. That's the country for a young man like you--just starting into life, and without incumbrances. If I was free and fixed in my family affairs like you I'd go to-morrow."
There was such an occult positivism in Demorest's manner that for an instant Blandford, who had been married two years, and was transacting a steady and fairly profitable manufacturing business in the adjacent town, actually believed he was more fitted for adventurous speculation than the grimly erratic man of energetic impulses and pleasures beside him. He managed to stammer hesitatingly:
"But there's Joan--she--"
"Nonsense! Let her stay with her mother; you sell out your interest in the business, put the money into an assorted cargo, and clap it and yourself into the first ship out of Boston--and there you are. You've been married going on two years now, and a little separation until you've built up a business out there, won't do either of you any harm."
Blandford, who was very much in love with his wife, was not, however, above putting the onus of embarrassing affection upon HER. "You don't know, Joan, Dick," he replied. "She'd never consent to a separation, even for a short time."
"Try her. She's a sensible woman--a deuced sight more than you are. You don't understand women, Ned. That's what's the matter with you."
It required all of Blandford's fond memories of his wife's conservative habits, Puritan practicality, religious domesticity, and strong family attachments, to withstand Demorest's dogmatic convictions. He smiled, however, with a certain complacency, as he also recalled the previous autumn when the first news of the California gold discovery had penetrated North Liberty, and he had expressed to her his belief that it would offer an outlet to Demorest's adventurous energy. She had received it with ill- disguised satisfaction, and the remark that if this exodus of Mammon cleared the community of the godless and unregenerate it would only be another proof of God's mysterious providence.
With the tumultuous wind at their backs it was not long before the buggy rattled once more over the cobble-stones of the town. Under the direction of his friend, Demorest, who still retained possession of the reins, drove briskly down a side street of more pretentious dwellings, where Blandford lived. One or two wayfarers looked up.
"Not so fast, Dick."
"Why? I want to bring you up to your door in style."
"Yes--but--it's Sunday. That's my house, the corner one."
They had stopped before a square, two-storied brick house, with an equally square wooden porch supported by two plain, rigid wooden columns, and a hollow sweep of dull concavity above the door, evidently of the same architectural order as the church. There was no corner or projection to break the force of the wind that swept its smooth glacial surface; there was no indication of light or warmth behind its six closed windows.
"There seems to be nobody at home," said Demorest, briefly. "Come along with me to the hotel."
"Joan sits in the back parlor, Sundays," explained the husband.
"Shall I drive round to the barn and leave the horse and buggy there while you go in?" continued Demorest, good-humoredly, pointing to the stable gate at the side.
"No, thank you," returned Blandford, "it's locked, and I'll have to open it from the other side after I go in. The horse will stand until then. I think I'll have to say good-night, now," he added, with a sudden half-ashamed consciousness of the forbidding aspect of the house, and his own inhospitality. "I'm sorry I can't ask you in--but you understand why."
"All right," returned Demorest, stoutly, turning up his coat- collar, and unfurling his umbrella. "The hotel is only four blocks away--you'll find me there to-morrow morning if you call. But mind you tell your wife just what I told you--and no meandering of your own--you hear! She'll strike out some idea with her woman's wits, you bet. Good-night, old man! He reached out his hand, pressed Blandford's strongly and potentially, and strode down the street.
Blandford hitched his steaming horse to a sleet-covered horse block with a quick sigh of impatient sympathy over the animal and himself, and after fumbling in his pocket for a latchkey, opened the front door. A vista of well-ordered obscurity with shadowy trestle-like objects against the walls, and an odor of chill decorum, as if of a damp but respectable funeral, greeted him on entering. A faint light, like a cold dawn, broke through the glass pane of a door leading to the kitchen. Blandford paused in the mid-darkness and hesitated. Should he first go to his wife in the back parlor, or pass silently through the kitchen, open the back gate, and mercifully bestow his sweating beast in the stable? With the reflection that an immediate conjugal greeting, while his horse was still exposed to the fury of the blast in the street, would necessarily be curtailed and limited, he compromised by quickly passing through the kitchen into the stable yard, opening the gate, and driving horse and vehicle under the shed to await later and more thorough ministration. As he entered the back door, a faint hope that his wife might have heard him and would be waiting for
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