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- Elder Conklin and Other Stories - 10/33 -
and her neck--round, too, and not a line on it, and how she walks! She's the woman I want--so lovely I'll always be proud of her. What a wife she'll make! My first wife was pretty, but not to be compared to her. Who'd ever have dreamt of finding such a beauty in this place? How lucky I am after all. Yes, lucky because I know just what I want, and go for it right from the start. That's all. That's what luck means.
"Women are won little by little," he concluded. "Whoever knows them and humours them right along, flattering their weak points, is sure to succeed some time or other. And I can wait."
He got his opportunity by waiting. As Loo took her seat in the buggy one afternoon he saw that she was nervous and irritable. "The schoolmaster's been goin' for her--the derned fool," he said to himself, and at once began to soothe her. The task was not an easy one. She was cold to him at first and even spiteful; she laughed at what he said and promised, and made fun of his pretensions. His kindly temper stood him in good stead. He was quietly persistent; with the emollient of good-nature he wooed her in his own fashion, and before they reached the first settler's house he had half won her to kindliness. Here he made his victory complete. At every question he appealed to her deferentially for counsel and decision; he reckoned Miss Conklin would know, he relied on her for the facts, and when she spoke he guessed that just settled the matter; her opinion was good enough for him, and so forth.
Wounded to the soul by Bancroft's persistent, undeserved contempt, the girl felt that now at last she had met some one who appreciated her, and she gave herself up to the charm of dexterous flattery.
From her expression and manner while they drove homewards, Barkman believed that the game was his own. He went on talking to her with the reverence which he had already found to be so effective. There was no one like her. What a lawyer she'd have made! How she got round the wife and induced the husband to sign the petition--'twas wonderful! He had never imagined a woman could be so tactful and winning. He had never met a man who was her equal in persuading people.
The girl drank in the praise as a dry land drinks the rain. He meant it all; that was clear. He had shown it in his words and acts--there, before the Croftons. She had always believed she could do such things; she didn't care much about books, and couldn't talk fine about moonlight, but the men an' women she knew, she understood. She was sure of that. But still, 'twas pleasant to hear it. He must love her or he never could appreciate her as he did. She reckoned he was very clever; the best lawyer in the State. Every one knew that. And he had said no man was equal to her. Oh, if only the other, if only George had told her so; but he was too much wrapped up in himself, and after all what was he anyway? Yet, if he had--
At this point of her musings the lawyer, seeing the flushed cheeks and softened glance, believed his moment had come, and resolved to use it. His passion made him forget that it was possible to go too fast.
"Miss Conklin," he began seriously, "if you'd join with me there's nothin' we two couldn't do, nothin'! They call me the first lawyer in the State, and I guess I'll get to Washington soon; but with you to help me I'd be there before this year's out. As the wife of a Member of Congress, you would show them all the way. I'm rich already; that is, I can do whatever you want, and it's a shame for such genius as yours, and such talent, to be hidden here among people who don't know how to value you properly. In New York or in Washington you'd shine; become a social power," and as the words "New York" caused the girl to look at him with eager attention, he added, overcome by the foretaste of approaching triumph: "Miss Loo, I love you; you've seen that, for you notice everythin'. I know I'm not young, but I can be kinder and more faithful than any young man, and," here he slipped his arm round her waist, "I guess all women want to be loved, don't they? Will you let me love you, Loo, as my wife?"
The girl shrank away from him nervously. Perhaps the fact of being in a buggy recalled her rides with George; or the caress brought home to her the difference between the two men. However that may be, when she answered, it was with full self-possession:
"I guess what you say's about right, and I like you. But I don't want to marry--anyway not yet. Of course I'd like to help you, and I'd like to live in New York; but--I can't make up my mind all at once. You must wait. If you really care for me, that can't be hard."
"Yes, it's hard," Barkman replied, "very hard to feel uncertain of winning the only woman I can ever love. But I don't want to press you," he added, after a pause, "I rely on you; you know best, and I'll do just what you wish."
"Well, then," she resumed, mollified by his humility, "you'll go back to Wichita this evenin', as you said you would, and when you return, the day after to-morrow, I'll tell you Yes or No. Will that do?" and she smiled up in his face.
"Yes, that's more than I had a right to expect," he acknowledged. "Hope from you is better than certainty from any other woman." In this mood they reached the homestead. Loo alighted at the gate; she wouldn't allow Barkman even to get down; he was to go right off at once, but when he returned she'd meet him. With a grave respectful bow he lifted his hat, and drove away. On the whole, he had reason to be proud of his diplomacy; reason, too, for saying to himself that at last he had got on "the inside track." Still, all the factors in the problem were not seen even by his keen eyes.
The next morning, Loo began to reflect upon what she should do. It did not occur to her that she had somewhat compromised herself with the lawyer by giving him leave, and, in fact, encouragement to expect a favourable answer. She was so used to looking at all affairs from the point of view of her own self-interest and satisfaction, that such an idea did not even enter her head. She simply wanted to decide on what was best for herself. She considered the matter as it seemed to her, from all sides, without arriving at any decision. Barkman was kind, and good to her; but she didn't care for him, and she loved George still. Oh, why wasn't he like the other, always sympathetic and admiring? She sat and thought. In the depths of her nature she felt that she couldn't give George up, couldn't make up her mind to lose him; and why should she, since they loved each other? What could she do?
Of a sudden she paused. She remembered how, more than a year before, she had been invited to Eureka for a ball. She had stayed with her friend Miss Jennie Blood; by whose advice and with whose help she had worn for the first time a low-necked dress. She had been uncomfortable in it at first, very uncomfortable, but the men liked it, all of them. She had seen their admiration in their eyes; as Jennie had said, it fetched them. If only George could see her in a low-necked dress--she flushed as she thought of it--perhaps he'd admire her, and then she'd be quite happy. But there were never any balls or parties in this dead-and-alive township! How could she manage it?
The solution came to her with a shock of half-frightened excitement. It was warm still, very warm, in the middle of the day; why shouldn't she dress as for a dance, somethin' like it anyway, and go into George's room to put it straight just before he came home from school? Her heart beat quickly as she reflected. After all, what harm was there in it? She recollected hearing that in the South all the girls wore low dresses in summer, and she loved George, and she was sure he loved her. Any one would do it, and no one would know. She resolved to try on the dress, just to see how it suited her. There was no harm in that. She took off her thin cotton gown quickly, and put on the ball-dress. But when she had dragged the chest of drawers before the window and had propped up the little glass on it to have a good look at herself, she grew hot. She couldn't wear that, not in daylight; it looked, oh, it looked--and she blushed crimson. Besides, the tulle was all frayed and faded. No, she couldn't wear it! Oh!--and her eyes filled with tears of envy and vexation. If only she were rich, like lots of other girls, she could have all sorts of dresses. 'Twas unfair, so it was. She became desperate with disappointment, and set her wits to work again. She had plenty of time still. George wouldn't be back before twelve. She must choose a dress he had never seen; then he wouldn't know but what she often wore it so. Nervously, hurriedly, she selected a cotton frock, and before the tiny glass pinned and arranged it over her shoulders and bust, higher than the ball-dress, but still, lower than she had ever worn in the daytime. She fashioned the garment with an instinctive sense of form that a Parisian _couturière_ might have envied, and went to work. Her nimble fingers soon cut and sewed it to the style she had intended, and then she tried it on. As she looked at herself in the mirror the vision of her loveliness surprised and charmed her. She had drawn a blue ribband that she happened to possess, round the arms of the dress and round the bodice of it, and when she saw how this little thread of colour set off the full outlines of her bust and the white roundness of her arms, she could have kissed her image in the glass. She was lovely, prettier than any girl in the section. George would see that; he loved beautiful things. Hadn't he talked of the scenery for half an hour? He'd be pleased.
She thought again seriously whether her looks could not be improved. After rummaging a little while in vain, she went downstairs and borrowed a light woollen shawl from her mother on the pretext that she liked the feel of it. Hastening up to her own room, she put it over her shoulders, and practised a long time before the dim glass just to see how best she could throw it back or draw it round her at will.
At last, with a sigh of content, she felt herself fully equipped for the struggle; she was looking her best. If George didn't care for her so-- and she viewed herself again approvingly from all sides--why, she couldn't help it. She had done all she could, but if he did, and he must--why, then, he'd tell her, and they'd be happy. At the bottom of her heart she felt afraid. George was strange; not a bit like other men. He might be cold, and at the thought she felt inclined to cry out. Pride, however, came to her aid. If he didn't like her, it would be his fault. She had just done her best, and that she reckoned, with a flush of pardonable conceit, was good enough for any man.
An hour later Bancroft went up to his room. As he opened the door Loo turned towards him from the centre-table with a low cry of surprise, drawing at the same time the ends of the fleecy woollen wrap tight across her breast.
"Oh, George, how you scared me! I was jest fixin' up your things." And the girl crimsoned, while her eyes sought to read his face.
"Thank you," he rejoined carelessly, and then, held by something of expectation in her manner, he looked at her intently, and added: "Why, Loo, how well you look! I like that dress; it suits you." And he stepped towards her.
She held out both hands as if to meet his, but by the gesture the woollen scarf was thrown back, and her form unveiled. Once again her mere beauty stung the young man to desire, but something of a conscious look in her face gave him thought, and, scrutinizing her coldly, he said:
"I suppose that dress was put on for Mr. Barkman's benefit."
"Oh, George!" she cried, in utter dismay, "he hain't been here to-day."
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