Chapter VII
 

The next morning Ramsey came into his father's room while Mr. Milholland was shaving, an hour before church time, and it became apparent that the son had someting on his mind, though for a while he said nothing.

"Did you want anything, Ramsey?"

"Well--"

"Didn't want to borrow my razors?"

"No, sir."

Mr. Milholland chuckled. "I hardly supposed so, seriously! Shaving is a great nuisance and the longer you keep away from it, the better. And when you do, you let my razors alone, young feller!"

"Yes, sir." (Mr. Milholland's rzaors were safe, Ramsey had already achieved one of his own, but he practised the art in secret.) He passed his hand thoughtfully over his cheeks, and traces of white powder were left upon his fingers, whereupon he wiped his hand surreptitiously, and stood irresolutely waiting.

"What is it you really want, Ramsey?"

"I guess I don't want anything."

"Money?"

"No, sir. You gay' me some Friday."

Mr. Milholland turned from his mirror and looked over the edge of a towel at his son. In the boy's eyes there was such a dumb agony of interrogation that the father was a little startled.

"Why, what is it, Ramsey? Have you--" He paused, frowning and wondering. "You haven't been getting into some mess you want to tell me about, have you?"

"No, sir."

His tone was meek, but a mute distress lurked within it, bringing to the father's mind disturbing suspicions, and foreshadowings of indignation and of pity. "See here, Ramsey," he said, "if there's anything you want to ask me, or to tell me, you'd better out with it and get it over. Now, what is it?"

"Well--it isn't anything."

"Are you sure?"

Ramsey's eyes fell before the severe and piercing gaze of his father. "Yes, sir."

Mr. Milholland shook his head doubtfully; then, as his son walked slowly out of the room, he turned to complete his toilet in a somewhat uneasy frame of mind. Ramsey had undoubtedly wanted to say something to him and the boy's expression had shown that the matter in question was serious, distressing, and, it might be, even critical.

In fact it was--to Ramsey. Having begun within only the last few hours to regard haberdashery as of vital importance, and believing his father to be possessed of the experience and authority lacking in himself, Ramsey had come to get him to settle a question which had been upsetting him badly, in his own room, since breakfast. What he want to know was: Whether it was right to wear an extra handkerchief showing out of the coat breast pocket or not, and, if it was right-- ought the handkerchief to have a coloured border or to be plain white? But he had never before brought any such perplexities to his father, and found himself too diffident to set them forth.

However, when he left the house, a few minutes later, he boldly showed an inch of purple border above the pocket; then, as he was himself about to encounter several old lady pedestrians, he blushed and thrust the handkerchief down into deep concealment. Having gone a block farther, he pulled it up again; and so continued to operate this badge of fashion, or unfashion, throughout the morning; and suffered a great deal thereby.

Meantime, his father, rather relieved that Ramsey had not told his secret, whatever it was, dismissed the episode from his mind and joined Mrs. Milholland at the front door, ready for church.

"Where's Ramsey?" he asked.

"He's gone ahead," she answered, buttoning her gloves as they went along. "I heard the door quite a little while ago. Perhaps he went over to walk down with Charlotte and Vance. Did you notice how neat he looks this morning?"

"Why, no, I didn't; not particularly. Does he?"

"I never saw anything like it before," said Mrs. Milholland. "He went down in the cellar and polished his own shoes."

"What!"

"For about an hour, I think," she said, as one remaining calm before a miracle. "And he only has three neckties, but I saw him several times in each of them. He must have kept changing and changing. I wonder--" She paused.

"I'm glad he's begun to take a little care of his appearance at last. Business men think a good deal about that, these days, when he comes to make his start in the world. I'll have to take a look at him and give him a word of praise. I suppose he'll be in the pew when we get there."

But Ramsey wasn't in the pew; and Charlotte, his sister, and her husband, who were there, said they hadn't seen anything of him. It was not until the members of the family were on their way home after the services that they caught a glimpse of him.

They were passing a church a little distance from their own; here the congregation was just emerging to the open, and among the sedate throng descending the broad stone steps appeared an accompanied Ramsey--and a red, red Ramsey he was when he beheld his father and mother and sister and brother-in-law staring up at him from the pavement below. They were kind enough not to come to an absolute halt, but passed slowly on, so that he was just able to avoid parading up the street in front of them. The expressions of his father, mother, and sister were of a dumfoundedness painful to bear, while such lurking jocosity as that apparent all over his brother- in-law no dignified man should either exhibit or be called upon to ignore.

In hoarse whispers, Mrs. Milholland chided her husband for an exclamation he had uttered. "John! On Sunday! You ought to be ashamed."

"I couldn't help it," he exclaimed. "Who on earth is his clinging vine? Why, she's got lavender tops on her shoes and--"

"Don't look round!" she warned him sharply. "Don't--"

"Well, what's he doing at a Baptist church? What's he fidgeting at his handkerchief about? Why can't he walk like people? Does he think it's obligatory to walk home from church anchored arm-in-arm like Swedes on a Sunday Out? Who is this cow-eyed fat girl that's got him, anyhow?"

"Hush! Don't look round again, John."

"Never fear!" said her husband, having disobeyed. "They've turned off; they're crossing over to Bullard Street. Who is it?"

"I think her name's Rust," Mrs. Milholland informed him. "I don't know what her father does. She's one of the girls in his class at school."

"Well, that's just like a boy; pick out some putty-faced flirt to take to church!"

"Oh, she's quite pretty--in that way!" said his wife, deprecatingly. "Of course that's the danger with public schools. It would be pleasanter if he'd taken a fancy to someone whose family belongs to our own circle."

"'Taken a fancy'!" he echoed, hooting. "Why, he's terrible! He looked like a red-gilled goldfish that's flopped itself out of the bowl. Why, he--"

"I say I wish if he felt that he had to take girls anywhere," said Mrs. Milholland, with the primmest air of speaking to the point--"if this sort of thing must begin, I wish he might have selected some nice girl among the daughters of our own friends, like Dora Yocum, for instance."

Upon the spot she began to undergo the mortification of a mother who has expected her son, just out of infancy, to look about him with the eye of a critical matron of forty-five. Moreover, she was indiscreet enough to express her views to Ramsey, a week later, producing thus a scene of useless great fury and no little sound.

"I do think it's in very poor tast to see so much of any one girl, Ramsey," she said, and, not heeding his protest that he only walked home from school with Milla, "about every other day," and that it didn't seem any crime to him just to go to church with her a couple o' times, Mrs. Milholland went on: "But if you think you really must be dangling around somebody quite this much--though what in the world you find to talk about with this funny little Milla Rust you poor father says he really cannot see--and of course it seems very queer to us that you'd be willing to waste so much time just now when your mind ought to be entirely on your studies, and especially with such an absurd looking little thing--

"No, you must listen, Ramsey, and let me speak now. What I meant was that we shouldn't be quite so much distressed by your being seen with a girl who dressed in better taste and seemed to have some notion of refinement, though of course it's only natural she wouldn't, with a father who is just a sort of ward politician, I understand, and a mother we don't know, and of course shouldn't care to. But, oh, Ramsey! if you had to make yourself so conspicuous why couldn't you be a little bit more fastidious? Your father wouldn't have minded nearly so much if it had been a self-respecting, intellectual girl. We both say that if you must be so ridiculous at your age as to persist in seeing more of one girl than another, why, oh why, don't you go and see some really nice girl like Dora Yocum?"

Ramsey was already dangerously distended, as an effect of the earlier part of her discourse, and the word "fastidious" almost exploded him; but upon the climax, "Dora Yocum," he blew up with a shattering report and, leaving fragments of incoherence ricochetting behind him, fled shuddering from the house.

For the rest of the school term he walked home with Milla every afternoon and on sundays appeared to have become a resolute Baptist. It was supposed (by the interested members of the high-school class) that Ramsey and Milla were "engaged." Ramsey sometimes rather supposed they were himself, and the dim idea gave him a sensation partly pleasant, but mostly apprehensive: he was afraid.

He was afraid that the day was coming when he ought to kiss her.