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- TRENT'S TRUST & OTHER STORIES - 20/45 -
pass over her shoulders, and then a cry that ended in an uncontrollable and half-hysterical laugh followed from the depths of that apron, until shaking her sides, and with her head still enveloped in its covering, she fairly ran into the inner room and closed the door behind her.
Amazed, shocked, and at first indignant, Dr. Blair remained fixed to the spot. Then his indignation gave way to a burning mortification as he recalled his speech. He had made a frightful faux pas! He had been fool enough to try to recall the most sacred memories of that dead husband he was trying to succeed--and her quick woman's wit had detected his ridiculous stupidity. Her laugh was hysterical--but that was only natural in her mixed emotions. He mounted his horse in confusion and rode away.
For a few days he avoided the house. But when he next saw her she had a charming smile of greeting and an air of entire obliviousness of his past blunder. She said she was better. She had taken his advice and was giving herself some relaxation from business. She had been riding again--oh, so far! Alone?--of course; she was always alone--else what would Laurel Spring say?
"True," said Blair smilingly; "besides, I forgot that you are quite able to take care of yourself in an emergency. And yet," he added, admiringly looking at her lithe figure and indolent grace, "do you know I never can associate you with the dreadful scenes they say you have gone through."
"Then please don't!" she said quickly; "really, I'd rather you wouldn't. I'm sick and tired of hearing of it!" She was half laughing and yet half in earnest, with a slight color on her cheek.
Blair was a little embarrassed. "Of course, I don't mean your heroism--like that story of the intruder and the scissors," he stammered.
"Oh, THAT'S the worst of all! It's too foolish--it's sickening!" she went on almost angrily. "I don't know who started that stuff." She paused, and then added shyly, "I really am an awful coward and horribly nervous--as you know."
He would have combated this--but she looked really disturbed, and he had no desire to commit another imprudence. And he thought, too, that he again had seen in her eyes the same hopeful, wistful light he had once seen before, and was happy.
This led him, I fear, to indulge in wilder dreams. His practice, although increasing, barely supported him, and the widow was rich. Her business had been profitable, and she had repaid the advances made her when she first took the hotel. But this disparity in their fortunes which had frightened him before now had no fears for him. He felt that if he succeeded in winning her affections she could afford to wait for him, despite other suitors, until his talents had won an equal position. His rivals had always felt as secure in his poverty as they had in his peaceful profession. How could a poor, simple doctor aspire to the hand of the rich widow of the redoubtable MacGlowrie?
It was late one afternoon, and the low sun was beginning to strike athwart the stark columns and down the long aisles of the redwoods on the High Ridge. The doctor, returning from a patient at the loggers' camp in its depths, had just sighted the smaller groves of Laurel Springs, two miles away. He was riding fast, with his thoughts filled with the widow, when he heard a joyous bark in the underbrush, and Fluffy came bounding towards him. Blair dismounted to caress him, as was his wont, and then, wisely conceiving that his mistress was not far away, sauntered forward exploringly, leading his horse, the dog hounding before him and barking, as if bent upon both leading and announcing him. But the latter he effected first, for as Blair turned from the trail into the deeper woods, he saw the figures of a man and woman walking together suddenly separate at the dog's warning. The woman was Mrs. MacGlowrie--the man was the revival preacher!
Amazed, mystified, and indignant, Blair nevertheless obeyed his first instinct, which was that of a gentleman. He turned leisurely aside as if not recognizing them, led his horse a few paces further, mounted him, and galloped away without turning his head. But his heart was filled with bitterness and disgust. This woman-- who but a few days before had voluntarily declared her scorn and contempt for that man and his admirers--had just been giving him a clandestine meeting like one of the most infatuated of his devotees! The story of the widow's fainting, the coarse surmises and comments of Slocum, came back to him with overwhelming significance. But even then his reason forbade him to believe that she had fallen under the preacher's influence--she, with her sane mind and indolent temperament. Yet, whatever her excuse or purpose was, she had deceived him wantonly and cruelly! His abrupt avoidance of her had prevented him from knowing if she, on her part, had recognized him as he rode away. If she HAD, she would understand why he had avoided her, and any explanation must come from her.
Then followed a few days of uncertainty, when his thoughts again reverted to the preacher with returning jealousy. Was she, after all, like other women, and had her gratuitous outburst of scorn of THEIR infatuation been prompted by unsuccessful rivalry? He was too proud to question Slocum again or breathe a word of his fears. Yet he was not strong enough to keep from again seeking the High Ridge, to discover any repetition of that rendezvous. But he saw her neither there, nor elsewhere, during his daily rounds. And one night his feverish anxiety getting the better of him, he entered the great "Gospel Tent" of the revival preacher.
It chanced to be an extraordinary meeting, and the usual enthusiastic audience was reinforced by some sight-seers from the neighboring county town--the district judge and officials from the court in session, among them Colonel Starbottle. The impassioned revivalist--his eyes ablaze with fever, his lank hair wet with perspiration, hanging beside his heavy but weak jaws--was concluding a fervent exhortation to his auditors to confess their sins, "accept conviction," and regenerate then and there, without delay. They must put off "the old Adam," and put on the flesh of righteousness at once! They were to let no false shame or worldly pride keep them from avowing their guilty past before their brethren. Sobs and groans followed the preacher's appeals; his own agitation and convulsive efforts seemed to spread in surging waves through the congregation, until a dozen men and women arose, staggering like drunkards blindly, or led or dragged forward by sobbing sympathizers towards the mourners' bench. And prominent among them, but stepping jauntily and airily forward, was the redoubtable and worldly Colonel Starbottle!
At this proof of the orator's power the crowd shouted--but stopped suddenly, as the colonel halted before the preacher, and ascended the rostrum beside him. Then taking a slight pose with his gold- headed cane in one hand and the other thrust in the breast of his buttoned coat, he said in his blandest, forensic voice:--
"If I mistake not, sir, you are advising these ladies and gentlemen to a free and public confession of their sins and a--er-- denunciation of their past life--previous to their conversion. If I am mistaken I--er--ask your pardon, and theirs and--er--hold myself responsible--er--personally responsible!"
The preacher glanced uneasily at the colonel, but replied, still in the hysterical intonation of his exordium:--
"Yes! a complete searching of hearts--a casting out of the seven Devils of Pride, Vain Glory"--
"Thank you--that is sufficient," said the colonel blandly. "But might I--er--be permitted to suggest that you--er--er--SET THEM THE EXAMPLE! The statement of the circumstances attending your own past life and conversion would be singularly interesting and exemplary."
The preacher turned suddenly and glanced at the colonel with furious eyes set in an ashy face.
"If this is the flouting and jeering of the Ungodly and Dissolute," he screamed, "woe to you! I say--woe to you! What have such as YOU to do with my previous state of unregeneracy?"
"Nothing," said the colonel blandly, "unless that state were also the STATE OF ARKANSAS! Then, sir, as a former member of the Arkansas BAR--I might be able to assist your memory--and--er--even corroborate your confession."
But here the enthusiastic adherents of the preacher, vaguely conscious of some danger to their idol, gathered threateningly round the platform from which he had promptly leaped into their midst, leaving the colonel alone, to face the sea of angry upturned faces. But that gallant warrior never altered his characteristic pose. Behind him loomed the reputation of the dozen duels he had fought, the gold-headed stick on which he leaned was believed to contain eighteen inches of shining steel--and the people of Laurel Spring had discretion.
He smiled suavely, stepped jauntily down, and made his way to the entrance without molestation.
But here he was met by Blair and Slocum, and a dozen eager questions:--
"What was it?" "What had he done?" "WHO was he?"
"A blank shyster, who had swindled the widows and orphans in Arkansas and escaped from jail."
"And his name isn't Brown?"
"No," said the colonel curtly.
"What is it?"
"That is a matter which concerns only myself and him, sir," said the colonel loftily; "but for which I am--er--personally responsible."
A wild idea took possession of Blair.
"And you say he was a noted desperado?" he said with nervous hesitation.
The colonel glared.
"Desperado, sir! Never! Blank it all!--a mean, psalm-singing, crawling, sneak thief!"
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