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- Love, The Fiddler - 1/25 -
LOVE, THE FIDDLER
BY LLOYD OSBOURNE
TO LEWIS VANUXEM
THE CHIEF ENGINEER, FFRENCHES FIRST, THE GOLDEN CASTAWAYS, THE AWAKENING OF GEORGE RAYMOND, THE MASCOT OF BATTERY B,
THE CHIEF ENGINEER
Frank Rignold had never been the favoured suitor, not at least so far as anything definite was concerned; but he had always been welcome at the little house on Commonwealth Street, and amongst the neighbours his name and that of Florence Fenacre were coupled as a matter of course and every old lady within a radius of three miles regarded the match as good as settled. It was not Frank's fault that it was not, for he was deeply in love with the widow's daughter and looked forward to such an end to their acquaintance as the very dearest thing fate could give him. But in these affairs it is necessary to carry the lady with you--and the lady, though she had never said "no," had not yet been prevailed upon to say "yes." In fact she preferred to leave the matter as it was, and boldly forestalling a set proposal, had managed to convey to Frank Rignold that it was her wish he should not make one.
"Let us be good friends," she would say, "and as for anything else, Frank, there's plenty of time to consider that by and by. Isn't it enough already that we like each other?"
Frank did not think it was enough, but he was not without intuition and willing to accept the little offered him and be grateful--rather than risk all, and almost certainly lose all, by too exigent a suit. For Florence Fenacre was the acknowledged beauty of the town, with a dozen eligible men at her feet, and was more courted and sought after than any girl in the place. The place, to give it its name, was Bridgeport, one of those dead- alive little ports on the Atlantic seaboard, with a dozen factories and some decaying wharves and that tranquil air of having had a past.
The widow and her pretty daughter lived in a low-roofed, red-brick house that faced the street and sheltered a long deep shady garden in the rear. Land and house had been bought with whale oil. Their little income, derived from the rent of three barren and stony farms and amounting to not more than sixty dollars a month, represented a capitalisation of whale oil. Even the old grey church whither they went twice of a Sunday, was whale oil too, and had been built in bygone days by the sturdy captains who now lay all around it under slabs of stone. There amongst them was Florence's father and her grandfather and her great-grandfather, together with the Macys and the Coffins and the Cabotts with whom they had sailed and quarrelled and loved and intermarried in the years now gone. The wide world had not been too wide for them to sail it round and reap the harvests of far-off seas; but in death they lay side by side, their voyages done, their bones mingling in the New England earth.
Frank Rignold too was a son of Bridgeport, and the sea which ran in that blood for generations bade him in manhood to rise and follow it. He had gone into the engine-room, and at thirty was the chief engineer of a cargo boat running to South American ports. He was a fine-looking man with earnest grey eyes; a reader, a student, an observer; self-taught in Spanish, Latin, and French; a grave, quiet gentlemanly man, whose rare smile seemed to light his whole face, and who in his voyages South had caught something of Spanish grace and courtliness. He returned as regularly to Bridgeport as his ship did to New York; and when he stepped off the train his eager steps took him first to the Fenacres' house, his hands never empty of some little present for his sweetheart.
On the occasion of our story his step was more buoyant than ever and his heart beat high with hope, for she had cried the last time he went away, and though no word of love had yet been spoken between them, he was conscious of her increasing inclination for him and her increasing dependence. Having already won so much it seemed as though his passionate devotion could not fail to turn the scale and bring her to that admission he felt it was on her lips to make. So he strode through the narrow streets, telling himself a fairy story of how it all might be, with a little house of their own and she waiting for him on the wharf when his ship made fast; a story that never grew stale in the repetition, but which, please God, would come true in the end, with Florence his wife, and all his doubtings and heart-aches over.
Florence opened the door for him herself and gave a little cry of surprise and welcome as they shook hands, for in all their acquaintance there had never been a kiss between them. It was all he could do not to catch her in his arms, for as she smiled up at him, so radiant and beautiful and happy, it seemed as if it were his right and that he had been a fool to have ever questioned her love for him. He followed her into the sitting-room, laughing like a child with pleasure and thrilled through and through with the sound of her voice and the touch of her hand and the vague, subtle perfume of her whole being. His laughter died away, however, as he saw what the room contained. Over the chairs, over the sofa, over the table, in the stacked and open pasteboard boxes on the floor, were dresses and evening gowns outspread with the profusion of a splendid shop, and even to his unpractised eyes, costly and magnificent beyond anything he had ever seen before. Florence swept an opera cloak from a chair and made him sit down, watching him the while with a charming gaiety and excitement. At such a moment it seemed to him positively heartless.
"Florence," he said, almost with a gasp, "does this mean that you are going to be--" He stopped short. He could not say that word.
"I'm never going to marry anybody," she returned.
"But--" he began again.
"Then you haven't heard!" she cried, clasping her hands. "Oh, Frank, you haven't heard!"
"I have only just got back," he said.
"I've been left heaps of money," she exclaimed, "from my uncle, you know, the one that treated father so badly and tricked him out of the old manor farm. I hardly knew he existed till he died. And it's not only a lot, Frank, but it's millions!"
He repeated the word with a kind of groan.
"They are probating the will for six," she went on, not noticing his agitation, "but I'm sure the lawyers are making it as low as they can for the taxes. And it's the most splendid kind of property--rows of houses in the heart of New York and big Broadway shops and skyscrapers! Frank, do you realise I own two office buildings twenty stories high?"
Frank tried to congratulate her on her wonderful good fortune, but it was like a voice from the grave and he could not affect to be glad at the death-knell of all his hopes.
"That lets me out," he said.
"My poor Frank, you never were in," she said, regarding him with great kindness and compassion. "I know you are disappointed, but you are too much a man to be unjust to me."
"Oh, I haven't the right to say a word!" he exclaimed quickly. "On your side it was friends and nothing more. I always understood that, Florence."
He was shocked at her almost imperceptible sigh of relief.
"Of course, this changes everything," she said.
"Yet it would have come if it hadn't been for this," he said. "You were getting to like me better and better. You cried when I last went away. Yes, it would have come, Florence," he repeated, looking at her wistfully.
"I suppose it would, Frank," she said.
"Oh, Florence!" he exclaimed, and could not go on lest his voice should betray him.
"And we should have lived in a poky little house," she said, "and you would have been to sea three-quarters of the time, leaving me to eat my heart out as mother did for father--and it would have been a horrible, dreadful, irrevocable mistake."
"I didn't have to go to sea," he said, snatching at this crumb of hope. "There are other jobs than ships. Why, only last trip I was offered a refrigerating plant in Chicago!"
He did not tell her it bore a salary of four hundred dollars a month and that he had meant to lay it at her feet that morning. In the light of her millions that sum, so considerable an hour before, had suddenly shrunk to nothing. How puny and pitiful it seemed in the contrast. He had a sense that everything had shrunk to nothing--his life, his hopes, his future.
"I know you think I am cruel," she said, in the same calm, considerate tone she had used throughout. "But I never gave you any encouragement, Frank--not in the way you wanted or expected. You were the only person I knew who was the least bit cultivated and nice and travelled and out of the commonplace. I can't tell you how much you brightened my life here, or how glad I was when you came or how sorry I was when you went away--but it wasn't
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