XIX. Proving the Perspicuity of Mr. Kellogg
 

A customer came and went, and then Nat noticed that twilight was beginning to darken the store. Though the hour wasn't late and the evenings were long at that season, the windows faced the east, and there were huge, overshadowing elms outside--just then heavy with luxuriant foliage; so dusk was always early in the room.

It was one of Nat's axioms that a store, to be successful, should be always brilliantly lighted. It was a bit expensive, perhaps, but in the long run it paid. For that reason he installed electric light as soon as he felt the business could afford it.

Now he moved to the windows and switched on the bulbs behind the huge glass jars filled with tinted water. Returning, he was about to connect up the remainder of the illuminating system, when Josie, entering, stayed him. Later he was glad of this.

"Nat..."

He knew that voice. "Why, Josie!" he exclaimed in surprise, swinging about to discover her standing on the threshold--very dainty and fetching, indeed, in one of the summery frocks she had brought back from New York.

She moved over to him, holding out her hand. He took it with disguised reluctance. "Where's Tracey?" she asked with a look that first held his eyes, then reviewed the store.

"This is his afternoon off," Nat reminded her.

"Then you're all alone?" she deduced archly.

"Oh, quite...."

"I'm so glad." She sighed and dropped into a chair by the soda-water counter. "I wanted to see you--to talk to you alone."

He bit his lip in his annoyance, shivering with a presentiment. "What about, Josie?"

"About Wednesday night--after prayer meeting. Why didn't you wait for me?"

"Why--ah--I had to get back to the store, you know--there were some cheques to be made out and sent off, and I'd forgotten them. Besides," he added on inspiration, "you were talking with Roland and I didn't want to interrupt you."

"So you left me to go home with him?"

"Why, what else--"

"You're making me awful' unhappy." Her voice trembled.

"I, Josie?"

"Yes. You knew I didn't want to walk home with Roland."

"How could I know that?"

"I should think you ought to know it, Nat, unless you're blind. Besides, I told you once."

"True," he fenced desperately, "but that was a long time ago; and how could I be sure you hadn't changed your mind? Besides, you know, I mustn't monopolise you. If I do...."

"Well?" she inquired sweetly as he paused on the lip of a break.

"Why, if I do--ah--"

"If you're afraid people will talk about us, seeing us so much together, you needn't worry. They're doing that now."

"Why, Josie!"

"Yes, they are. We've been going together so long, and then suddenly you don't seem to care about--care to be alone with me at all. This is the first chance I've had to talk to you, when there wasn't somebody else round, for I don't know how long. And even now you don't seem glad to see me."

"You should know I am...."

"You don't act like it."

"It's so unexpected," he muttered wretchedly.

"You didn't really think I wanted Roland Barnette to go home with me Wednesday night, did you, Nat?"

"It seemed so, but ... that's all right. Why shouldn't you?"

She turned to him, trembling a little. "Must I tell you, Nat?"

"O, no!" he cried in dismay. "Please don't----!"

"I see I must," she persisted. "You're so blind. It----"

"Josie, don't say anything you'll be sorry for," he entreated wildly.

"I can't help it: I've got to. It was--it was because I wanted to be with you.... There!" she gasped, frightened by her own forwardness.

"Now I've said it!"

Duncan grasped frantically at straws. "But you don't really mean it, Josie: you know you don't," he floundered. "You're just saying that because you--you have such a kind heart and--ah--don't want to hurt me--ah--because----"

She stemmed the flood of his protestations with a hand on his arm. "Nat," she said gently, looking up into his face, "would it make you happy to know I really meant it?"

"Why--ah--why shouldn't it, Josie?"

"Then please believe me, when I say it."

"But I do believe it. I..." He stammered and fell still.

"Because I do like you, Nat, very much, and--and it's very hard for me to know that folks think I'm pursuing you and that you're trying to avoid me."

"Josie!" he exclaimed reproachfully.

"Well, that's the way it looks," she affirmed plaintively. "You don't want it to, do you?"

"Why, no; of course I don't."

"Then why don't you stop it?" She watched his face, her manner coy and yielding. "Nat," she said in a softer voice, "if you like me as well as I like you----"

He moved away a pace or two. "Ah, child!" he said, with a feeling that the term was not misapplied, somehow, "you don't know what you're saying."

"Yes, I do." She pouted. "I don't believe you... care anything about me."

"Oh, Josie, please----"

"Well, anyway, you've never told me so." She turned an indignant shoulder to him.

"How could I?"

"Why couldn't you?"

"But don't you see that I shouldn't, Josie?" He turned back to her side, looked down at her, pleaded his defence with the fire of desperation.

"Just think: you are an only daughter." Just what this had to do with the case was not plain even to him. "An only daughter," he repeated-- "ah--not only your father's only daughter, but your mother's only daughter. Your father--ah--is my friend. How unfair it would be to him."

But the girl interrupted with decision. "But papa wants you to... He told me so."

He could only pretend not to understand. "But consider, Josie: you are rich, an heiress: I'm a poor man. Would you like it to be said I was after your money?"

"No one would dare say such a thing," she asserted with profound conviction.

"Oh, yes, they would. You don't know the world as I do. And for all you know, they might be right. How do you know that------"

"Nat!" A catch in her voice stopped him. "Don't say such horrid things! I could tell: a woman always can. I know you would be incapable of such a thing. Papa knows it, too. No one has ever got ahead of papa, and he says you are a fine, steady, Christian man, and he would rather see me your wife than any------"'

"Josie!"

The interjection was so imperative that she was silenced. "Why, what, Nat?" she asked, rising.

"The time has come," he declared; "you must know the truth."

"Oh, Nat!"

"I'm not what you think me," he continued, dramatic.

"Oh, Nat!"

"Nor what your father thinks me, nor what anybody else in this town thinks me. I'm not a regular Christian--it's all a bluff: I didn't know anything about a church till I came here. I smoke and I drink and I swear and I gamble, and I only cut them all out in order to trick you into caring for me!"

"Oh, Nat, I don't believe it."

"Alas, Josie!" he protested violently, "it's true, only too true!"

"But you did it to win my love, Nat?"

"Ye-es." He saw suddenly that he had made a fatal mistake.

"Then, Nat, I will be your wife in spite of all!"

He found himself suddenly caught about the neck by the girl's arms. His head was drawn down until her cheek caressed his and he felt her lips warm upon his own.

"Josie!" he gasped.

"Nat, my darling!"

With a supreme effort he pulled himself together and embraced the girl. "Josie," he said earnestly, "I--I'm going to try to be a good husband to you.... And that," he concluded, sotto voce, "wasn't in the agreement!"

She held him to her passionately. "Dearest, I'm so glad!"

"It makes me very happy to know you are, Josie," he murmured miserably. And to himself, while still she trembled in his embrace: "What a cur you are!... But I won't renege now; I'll play my hand out on the square, with her...."

Upon this tableau there came a sudden intrusion. The back door opened and Graham came in, Kellogg at his heels. It was the voice of the latter that told the two they were discovered: a hearty "Hello! What's this?" that rang in Nat's ears like the trump of doom.

In a flash the girl disengaged herself, and they were a yard apart by the time that Graham, blundering in his surprise, managed to turn on the lights at the switchboard. But even in the full glare of them he seemed unable to credit his sight.

"Why, Nat!" he quavered, coming out toward the guilty pair. "Why, Nat...!"

Duncan took a long breath and Josie's hand at one and the same time. "Mr. Graham," he said coolly, "I'm glad you're the first to know it. Josie has just ask--agreed to be my wife."

Old Sam recovered sufficiently to take the girl's hand and pat it. "I'm mighty glad, my dear," he told her. "I congratulate you both with all my heart."

"And so will I, when I have the right," Kellogg added, smiling.

"Oh, I forgot." Nat hastened to remedy his oversight. "Josie, this is my dearest friend, Mr. Kellogg; Harry, this is Miss Lockwood."

Josie gave Kellogg her hand. "I--I," she giggled--"I'm pleased to meet you, I'm sure."

"I'm charmed. I've heard a great deal of you, Miss Lockwood, from Nat's letters, and I shall hope to know you much better before long."

"It's awful' nice of you to say so, Mr. Kellogg."

"And, Nat, old man!" Kellogg threw an arm round Duncan's shoulder. "I congratulate you! You're a lucky dog!"

"I'm a dog, all right," said Nat glumly.

"But we mustn't disturb these young people, Mr. Kellogg," Graham broke in nervously.

"They'll--they'll have a lot to say to one another, I'm sure; so we'll just run along. I'm taking Mr. Kellogg up to the house, Nat. You'll follow us as soon as you can, won't you?"

"Yes--sure."

"I've got some news for you, too, that'll make you happy."

"Never mind about that; it'll keep till supper, Mr. Graham." Kellogg laughed, taking the old man's arm. "Good-bye, both of you--good-bye for a little while."

"Good-bye..."

"Wasn't that terrible!" Josie turned back to Nat when they were alone. "I think it was real mean of Mr. Graham to turn on all the lights that way," she simpered. "Somebody else might've seen."

"Yes," agreed the young man, half distracted; "but of course I daren't turn them off again."

"Never mind. We can wait." Josie blushed.

"I'll just sit here and wait--we can talk till Tracey comes, and then you can walk home with me."

"Yes, that'll be nice," he agreed, but without absolute ecstasy.

Fortunately for him, in his temper of that moment, Pete Willing reeled into the shop, two-thirds drunk, with his face smeared with blood from a cut on his forehead.

"'Scuse me," he muttered huskily. "Kin I see you a minute, Doc?"

He reeled and almost fell--would have fallen had not Duncan caught his arm and guided him to a chair. "Great Scott, Pete!" he cried. "What's happened to you?"

"M' wife..." Pete explained thickly.