Chapter IX
 

He woke in the morning to a great self-loathing: he had kissed a girl. Mingled with the loathing was a curious pride in the very fact that caused the loathing, but the pride did not last long. He came downstairs morbid to breakfast, and continued this mood afterward. At noon Albert Paxton brought him a note which Milla had asked Sadie to ask Albert to give him.

Dearie: I am just wondering if you thought as much about something so sweet that happened last night as I did you know what. I think it was the sweetest thing. I send you one with this note and I hope you will think it is a sweet one. I would give you a real one if you were here now and I hope you would think it was sweeter still than the one I put in this note. It is the sweetest thing now you are mine and I am yours forever kiddo. If you come around about friday eve it will be all right. aunt Jess will be gone back home by then so come early and we will get Sade and Alb and go to the band Concert. Don't forget what I said about my putting something sweet in this note, and I hope you will think it is a sweet one but not as sweet as the real sweet one I would like to--

At this point Ramsey impulsively tore the note into small pieces. He turned cold as his imagination projected a sketch of his mother in the act of reading this missive, and of her expression as she read the sentence: "It is the sweetest thing now you are mine and I am yours forever kiddo." He wished that Milla hadn't written "kiddo." She called him that, sometimes, but in her warm little voice the word seemed not at all what it did in ink. He wished, too, that she hadn't said she was his forever.

Suddenly he was seized with a horror of her.

Moisture broke out heavily upon him; he felt a definite sickness, and, wishing for death, went forth upon the streets to walk and walk. He cared not whither, so that his feet took him in any direction away from Milla, since they were unable to take him away from himself--of whom he had as great a horror. Her loving face was continually before him, and its sweetness made his flesh creep. Milla had been too sweet.

When he met or passed people, it seemed to him that perhaps they were able to recognize upon him somewhere the marks of his low quality. "Softy! Ole sloppy fool!" he muttered, addressing himself. "Slushy ole mush!... Spooner!" And he added, "Yours forever, kiddo!" Convulsions seemed about to seize him.

Turning a corner with his head down, he almost charged into Dora Yocum. She was homeward bound from a piano lesson, and carried a rolled leather case of sheet music--something he couldn't imagine Milla carrying--and in her young girl's dress, which attempted to be nothing else, she looked as wholesome as cold spring water. Ramsey had always felt that she despised him and now, all at once, he thought that she was justified. Leper that he had become, he was unworthy to be even touching his cap to her! And as she nodded and went briskly on, he would have given anything to turn and walk a little way with her, for it seemed to him that this might fumigate his morals. But he lacked the courage, and, besides, he considered himself unfit to be seen walking with her.

He had a long aftgernoon of anguishes, these becoming most violent when he tried to face the problem of his future course toward Milla. He did not face it at all, in fact, but merely writhed, and had evolved nothing when Friday evening was upon him and Milla waiting for him to take her to the "band concert" with "Alb and Sade." In his thoughts, by that time, this harmless young pair shared the contamination of his own crime, and he regarded them with aversion; however, he made shift to seek a short interview with Albert, just before dinner.

"I got a pretty rotten headache, and my stomach's upset, too," he said, drooping upon the Paxton's fence. "I been gettin' worse every minute. You and Sadie go by Milla's, Albert, and tell her if I'm not there by ha'-pas'-seven, tell her not to wait for me any longer."

"How do you mean 'wait'?" Albert inquired. "You don't expect her to come pokin' along with Sadie and me, do you? She'll keep on sittin' there at home just the same, because she wouldn't have anything else to do, if you don't come like she expects you to. She hasn't got any way to stop waitin'!"

At this, Ramsey moaned, without affectation. "I don't expect I can, Albert," he said. "I'd like to if I could, but the way it looks now, you tell her I wouldn't be much surprised maybe I was startin' in with typhoid fever or pretty near anything at all. You tell her I'm pretty near as disappointed as she's goin' to be herself, and I'd come if I could--and I will come if I get a good deal better, or anything--but the way it's gettin' to look now, I kind o' feel as if I might be breaking out with something any minute." He moved away, concluding, feebly: "I guess I better crawl on home, Albert, while I'm still able to walk some. You tell her the way it looks now I'm liable to be right sick."

And the next morning he woke to the chafings of remorse, picturing a Milla somewhat restored in charm waiting hopefully at the gate, even after half-past seven, and then, as time passed and the sound of the distant horns came faintly through the darkness, going sadly to her room--perhaps weeping there. It was a picture to wring him with shame and pity, but was followed by another which electrified him, for out of school he did not lack imagination. What if Albert had reported his illness too vividly to Milla? Milla was so fond! What if, in her alarm, she should come here to the house to inquire of his mother about him? What if she told Mrs. Milholland they were "engaged"? The next moment Ramsey was projecting a conversation between his mother and Milla in which the latter stated that she and Ramsey were soon to be married; that she regarded him as already virtually her husband, and demanded to nurse him.

In a panic he fled from the house before breakfast, going out by way of a side door, and he crossed back yeards and climbed back fences to reach Albert Paxton the more swiftly. This creature, a ladies' man almost professionaly, was found exercising with an electric iron and a pair of flannel trousers in a basement laundry, by way of stirring his appetite for the morning meal.

"See here, Albert," his friend said breathlessly. "I got a favour. I want you to go over to Milla's--"

"I'm goin' to finish pressin' these trousers," Albert interrupted. "Then I've got my breakfast to eat."

"Well, you could do this first," said Ramsey, hurriedly. "It wouldn't hurt you to do me this little favour first. You just slip over and see Milla for me, if she's up yet, and if she isn't, you better wait around there till she is, because I want you to tell her I'm a whole lot better this morning. Tell her I'm pretty near practick'ly all right again, Albert, and I'll prob'ly write her a note or something right soon--or in a week or so, anyhow. You tell her--"

"Well, you act pretty funny!" Albert exclaimed, fumbling in the pockets of his coat. "Why can't you go on over and tell her yourself?"

"I would," said Ramsey. "I'd be perfectly willing to go only I got to get back home to breakfast."

Albert stared. "Well, I got to go upstairs and eat my own breakfast in about a minute, haven't I? But just as it happens there wouldn't be any use your goin' over there, or me, either."

"Why not?"

"Milla ain't there," said Albert, still searching the pockets of his coat. "When we went by her house last night to tell her about your headache and stomach and all, why, her mother told us Milla'd gone up to Chicago yesterday afternoon with her aunt, and said she left a note for you, and she said if you were sick I better take it and give it to you. I was goin' to bring it over to your house after breakfast." He found it. "Here!"

Ramsey thanked him feebly, and departed in a state of partial stupefaction, brought on by a glimpse of the instabilities of life. He had also, not relief, but a sense of vacancy and loss; for Milla, out of his reach, once more became mysteriously lovely.

Pausing in an alley, he read her note.

Dearie: Thought I ought to call you up but over the 'phone is just nix for explations as Mama and Aunt Jess would hear everything and thought I might seem cold to you not saying anything sweet on account of them listening and you would wonder why I was so cold when telling you good-by for a wile maybe weeks. It is this way Uncle Purv wired Aunt Jess he has just taken in a big touring car on a debt and his vacation starts to-morrow so if they were going to take a trip they better start right way so Aunt Jess invited me. It is going to be a big trip up around the lakes and I have always wanted to go touring more than anything in the world stopping at hotels and all and Mama said I ought to it would be so splend for my health as she thinks I am failing some lately. Now dearie I have to pack and write this in a hury so you will not be disappointed when you come by for the B. C. to-night. Do not go get some other girl and take her for I would hate her and nothing in this world make me false for one second to my kiddo boy. I do not know just when home again as the folks think I better stay up there for a visit at Aunt Jess and Uncle Purvs home in Chicago after the trip is over. But I will think of you all the time and you must think of me every minute and believe your own dearie she will never no not for one second be false. So tell Sade and Alb good-by for me and do not be false to me any more than I would be to you and it will not be long till nothing more will interupt our sweet friendship.

As a measure of domestic prudence, Ramsey tore the note into irreparable fragments, but he did this slowly, and without experiencing any of the revulsion created by Milla's former missive.

He was melancholy, aggrieved that she should treat him so.