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- Quill's Window - 1/55 -
[Illustration: "What are you doing up here?"]
BY GEORGE BARR McCUTCHEON
C. ALLAN GILBERT
I THE FORBIDDEN ROCK II THE STORY THE OLD MAN TOLD III COURTNEY THANE IV DOWD'S TAVERN V TRESPASS VI CHARLIE WEBSTER ENTERTAINS VII COURTNEY APPEARS IN PUBLIC VIII ALIX THE THIRD IX A MID-OCTOBER DAY X THE CHIMNEY CORNER XI THANE VISITS TWO HOUSES XII WORDS AND LETTERS XIII THE OLD INDIAN TRAIL XIV SUSPICION XV THE FACE AT THE WINDOW XVI ROSABEL XVII SHADOWS XVIII MR. GILFILLAN IS PUZZLED XIX BRINGING UP THE PAST XX THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ROSABEL VICK XXI OUT OF THE NIGHT XXII THE THROWER OF STONES XXIII A MESSAGE AND ITS ANSWER XXIV AT QUILL'S WINDOW
THE FORBIDDEN ROCK
A young man and an old one sat in the shade of the willows beside the wide, still river. The glare of a hot August sun failed to penetrate the shelter in which they idled; out upon the slow-gliding river it beat relentlessly, creating a pale, thin vapour that clung close to the shimmering surface and dazzled the eye with an ever-shifting glaze. The air was lifeless, sultry, stifling; not a leaf, not a twig in the tall, drooping willows moved unless stirred by the passage of some vagrant bird.
The older man sat on the ground, his back against the trunk of a tree that grew so near to the edge that it seemed on the point of toppling over to shatter the smooth, green mirror below. Some of its sturdy exposed roots reached down from the bank into the water, where they caught and held the drift from upstream,--reeds and twigs and matted grass,--a dirty, sickly mass that swished lazily on the flank of the slow-moving current.
The water here in the shade was deep and clear and limpid, contrasting sharply with the steel-white surface out beyond.
The young man occupied a decrepit camp stool, placed conveniently against the trunk of another tree hard by. A discarded bamboo rod lay beside him on the bank, the hook and line hopelessly tangled in the drift below. He smoked cigarettes.
His companion held a well-chewed black cigar in the vise-like corner of his mouth. His hook and line were far out in the placid water, an ordinary cork serving as a "bob" from which his dreary, unwavering gaze seldom shifted.
"I guess they're through bitin' for today," he remarked, after a long unbroken silence.
"How many have we got?" inquired the other languidly.
"Between us we've got twenty-four. That's a fair-sized mess. Sunfish don't make much of a showing unless you get a barrel of 'em."
"Good eating though," mused the young man.
"Fried in butter," supplemented the other. "What time is it?"
"Well, that's just about what I'd figured. I've been fishin' in this 'hole' for something like forty years, off and on, and I've found out that these here sunfish get through breakfast at exactly eighteen minutes past nine. I always allow about ten minutes' leeway in case one or two of 'em might have been out late the night before or something,--but as a general thing they're pretty dog-goned prompt for breakfast. Specially in August. Even a fish is lazy in August. Look at that fish-worm. By gosh, it's BOILED! That shows you how hot the water is."
He removed the worm from the hook and slowly began to twist the pole in the more or less perfunctory process of "winding up" the line. The young man looked on disinterestedly.
"Ain't you going to untangle that line?" inquired the old man, jerking his thumb.
"What's the use? The worm is dead by this time, and God knows I prefer to let him rest in peace. The quickest way to untangle a line is to do it like this."
He severed it with his pocket-knife.
"A line like that costs twenty-five cents," said the old man, a trace of dismay in his voice.
"That's what it cost when it was new," drawled the other. "You forget it's been a second-hand article since eight o'clock this morning,--and what's a second-hand fish-line worth?--tell me that. How much would you give, in the open market, or at an auction sale, for a second-hand fish-line?"
"I guess we'd better be gittin' back to the house," said the other, ignoring the question. "Got to clean these fish if we're expectin' to have 'em for dinner,--or lunch, as you fellers call it. I'll bet your grandfather never called it lunch. And as for him callin' supper DINNER,--why, by crickey, he NEVER got drunk enough for that."
"More than that," said the young man calmly, "he never saw a cigarette, or a telephone, or a Ford, or a safety-razor,--or a lot of other things that have sprung up since he cashed in his checks. To be sure, he did see a few things I've never seen,--such as clay-pipes, canal boats, horse-hair sofas, top-boots and rag-carpets,--and he probably saw Abraham Lincoln,--but, for all that, I'd rather be where I am today than where he is,--and I'm not saying he isn't in heaven, either."
The older man's eyes twinkled. "I don't think he's any nearer heaven than he was forty years ago,--and he's been dead just about that long. He wasn't what you'd call a far-seeing man,--and you've got to look a long ways ahead if you want to see heaven. Your grandma's in heaven all right,--and I'll bet she was the most surprised mortal that ever got inside the pearly gates if she found him there ahead of her. Like as not she would have backed out, thinking she'd got into the wrong place by mistake. And if he IS up there, I bet he's making the place an everlastin' hell for her. Yep, your grandpa was about as mean as they make 'em. As you say, he didn't know anything about cigarettes, but he made up for it by runnin' after women and fast horses,--or maybe it was hosses and, fast women,--and cheatin' the eye teeth out of everybody he had any dealings with."
"I don't understand how he happened to die young, If all these things were true about him," said the other, lighting a fresh cigarette and drawing in a deep, full breath of the pungent smoke. The old man waited a few seconds for the smoke to be expelled, and then, as it came out in a far-reaching volume, carrying far on the still air, his face betrayed not only relief but wonder.
"You don't actually swaller it, do you?" he inquired.
"Certainly not. I inhale, that's all. Any one can do it."
"I'd choke to death," said the old man, shifting his cigar hastily from one side of his mouth to the other, and taking a fresh grip on it with his teeth,--as if fearing the consequences of a momentary lapse of control.
"You've been chewing that cigar for nearly two hours," observed the young man. "I call that a filthy habit."
"I guess you're right," agreed the other, amiably. "The best you can say for it is that it's a man's job, and not a woman's," he added, with all the scorn that the cigar smoker has for the man who affects nothing but cigarettes.
"You can't make me sore by talking like that," said his companion, stretching himself lazily. "Approximately ten million men smoked cigarettes over in France for four years and more, and I submit that they had what you might call a man's job on their hands."
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