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- A Phyllis of the Sierras - 2/17 -
The situation was becoming embarrassing to the intruder. At the apparition of the woman, the unaffected and simple directness he had previously shown in his equally abrupt contact with Bradley had fled utterly; confused by the awkwardness of his arrival, and shocked at the idea of overhearing a private conversation, he stepped hurriedly on the veranda.
"Well? go on!" said the second voice impatiently. "Well, who else was there? WHAT did you say? I don't hear you. What's the matter?"
The seated figure had risen from her chair, and turned a young and pretty face somewhat superciliously towards the stranger, as she said in a low tone to her unseen auditor, "Hush! there is somebody here."
The young man came forward with an awkwardness that was more boyish than rustic. His embarrassment was not lessened by the simultaneous entrance from the open door of a second woman, apparently as young as and prettier than the first.
"I trust you'll excuse me for--for--being so wretchedly stupid," he stammered, "but I really thought, you know, that--that--I was following the trail to--to--the front of the house, when I stumbled in--in here."
Long before he had finished, both women, by some simple feminine intuition, were relieved and even prepossessed by his voice and manner. They smiled graciously. The later-comer pointed to the empty chair. But with his habit of pertinacious conscientiousness the stranger continued, "It was regularly stupid, wasn't it?--and I ought to have known better. I should have turned back and gone away when I found out what an ass I was likely to be, but I was-- afraid--you know, of alarming you by the noise."
"Won't you sit down?" said the second lady, pleasantly.
"Oh, thanks! I've a letter here--I"--he transferred his stick and hat to his left hand as he felt in his breast-pocket with his right. But the action was so awkward that the stick dropped on the veranda. Both women made a movement to restore it to its embarrassed owner, who, however, quickly anticipated them. "Pray don't mind it," he continued, with accelerated breath and heightened color. "Ah, here's the letter!" He produced the note Bradley had returned to him. "It's mine, in fact--that is, I brought it to Mr. Bradley. He said I was to give it to--to--to--Mrs. Bradley." He paused, glancing embarrassedly from the one to the other.
"I'm Mrs. Bradley," said the prettiest one, with a laugh. He handed her the letter. It ran as follows:--
"DEAR BRADLEY--Put Mr. Mainwaring through as far as he wants to go, or hang him up at The Lookout, just as he likes. The Bank's behind him, and his hat's chalked all over the Road; but he don't care much about being on velvet. That ain't his style--and you'll like him. He's somebody's son in England. B."
Mrs. Bradley glanced simply at the first sentence. "Pray sit down, Mr. Mainwaring," she said gently; "or, rather, let me first introduce my cousin--Miss Macy."
"Thanks," said Mainwaring, with a bow to Miss Macy, "but I--I--I-- think," he added conscientiously, "you did not notice that your husband had written something across the paper."
Mrs. Bradley smiled, and glanced at her husband's indorsement--"All right. Wade in." "It's nothing but Jim's slang," she said, with a laugh and a slightly heightened color. "He ought not to have sent you by that short cut; it's a bother, and even dangerous for a stranger. If you had come directly to US by the road, without making your first call at the mill," she added, with a touch of coquetry, "you would have had a pleasanter walk, and seen US sooner. I suppose, however, you got off the stage at the mill?"
"I was not on the coach," said Mainwaring, unfastening the strap of his knapsack. "I walked over from Lone Pine Flat."
"Walked!" echoed both women in simultaneous astonishment.
"Yes," returned Mainwaring simply, laying aside his burden and taking the proffered seat. "It's a very fine bit of country."
"Why, it's fifteen miles," said Mrs. Bradley, glancing horror- stricken at her cousin. "How dreadful! And to think Jim could have sent you a horse to Lone Pine. Why, you must be dead!"
"Thanks, I'm all right! I rather enjoyed it, you know."
"But," said Miss Macy, glancing wonderingly at his knapsack, "you must want something, a change--or some refreshment--after fifteen miles."
"Pray don't disturb yourself," said Mainwaring, rising hastily, but not quickly enough to prevent the young girl from slipping past him into the house, whence she rapidly returned with a decanter and glasses.
"Perhaps Mr. Mainwaring would prefer to go into Jim's room and wash his hands and put on a pair of slippers?" said Mrs. Bradley, with gentle concern.
"Thanks, no. I really am not tired. I sent some luggage yesterday by the coach to the Summit Hotel," he said, observing the women's eyes still fixed upon his knapsack. "I dare say I can get them if I want them. I've got a change here," he continued, lifting the knapsack as if with a sudden sense of its incongruity with its surroundings, and depositing it on the end of the veranda.
"Do let it remain where it is," said Mrs. Bradley, greatly amused, "and pray sit still and take some refreshment. You'll make yourself ill after your exertions," she added, with a charming assumption of matronly solicitude.
"But I'm not at all deserving of your sympathy," said Mainwaring, with a laugh. "I'm awfully fond of walking, and my usual constitutional isn't much under this."
"Perhaps you were stronger than you are now," said Mrs. Bradley, gazing at him with a frank curiosity that, however, brought a faint deepening of color to his cheek.
"I dare say you're right," he said suddenly, with an apologetic smile. "I quite forgot that I'm a sort of an invalid, you know, travelling for my health. I'm not very strong here," he added, lightly tapping his chest, that now, relieved of the bands of his knapsack, appeared somewhat thin and hollow in spite of his broad shoulders. His voice, too, had become less clear and distinct.
Mrs. Bradley, who was still watching him, here rose potentially. "You ought to take more care of yourself," she said. "You should begin by eating this biscuit, drinking that glass of whiskey, and making yourself more comfortable in Jim's room until we can get the spare room fixed a little."
"But I am not to be sent to bed--am I?" asked Mainwaring, in half- real, half-amused consternation.
"I'm not so sure of that," said Mrs. Bradley, with playful precision. "But for the present we'll let you off with a good wash and a nap afterwards in that rocking-chair, while my cousin and I make some little domestic preparations. You see," she added with a certain proud humility, "we've got only one servant--a Chinaman, and there are many things we can't leave to him."
The color again rose in Mainwaring's cheek, but he had tact enough to reflect that any protest or hesitation on his part at that moment would only increase the difficulties of his gentle entertainers. He allowed himself to be ushered into the house by Mrs. Bradley, and shown to her husband's room, without perceiving that Miss Macy had availed herself of his absence to run to the end of the veranda, mischievously try to lift the discarded knapsack to her own pretty shoulder, but, failing, heroically stagger with it into the passage and softly deposit it at his door. This done, she pantingly rejoined her cousin in the kitchen.
"Well," said Mrs. Bradley, emphatically. "DID you ever? Walking fifteen miles for pleasure--and with such lungs!"
"And that knapsack!" added Louise Macy, pointing to the mark in her little palm where the strap had imbedded itself in the soft flesh.
"He's nice, though; isn't he?" said Mrs. Bradley, tentatively.
"Yes," said Miss Macy, "he isn't, certainly, one of those provincial fine gentlemen you object to. But DID you see his shoes? I suppose they make the miles go quickly, or seem to measure less by comparison."
"They're probably more serviceable than those high-heeled things that Captain Greyson hops about in."
"But the Captain always rides--and rides very well--you know," said Louise, reflectively. There was a moment's pause.
"I suppose Jim will tell us all about him," said Mrs. Bradley, dismissing the subject, as she turned her sleeves back over her white arms, preparatory to grappling certain culinary difficulties.
"Jim," observed Miss Macy, shortly, "in my opinion, knows nothing more than his note says. That's like Jim."
"There's nothing more to know, really," said Mrs. Bradley, with a superior air. "He's undoubtedly the son of some Englishman of fortune, sent out here for his health."
Miss Macy had heard a step in the passage. It halted at last, half irresolutely, before the open door of the kitchen, and the stranger appeared with an embarrassed air.
But in his brief absence he seemed to have completely groomed himself, and stood there, the impersonation of close-cropped, clean, and wholesome English young manhood. The two women appreciated it with cat-like fastidiousness.
"I beg your pardon; but really you're going to let a fellow do something for you," he said, "just to keep him from looking like a fool. I really can do no end of things, you know, if you'll try me. I've done some camping-out, and can cook as well as the next
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