XXI. As Others Saw Him
 

If Nat's cry of recognition had been wondering, it was no less one of delight. The surprise he felt was perfectly natural; Betty wasn't to have returned until the morrow, and was therefore the last person he had expected to see when he looked up from the telephone desk. But it was the change in the girl that most stirred him: the change he had prophesied, planned for, anticipated eagerly throughout the long seven months of her absence; to have his expectations so wonderfully fulfilled, and more than fulfilled, pleased him beyond expression. And it's curious to speculate upon the fact that he fancied his greatest pleasure came from the knowledge that old Sam would be so overjoyed....

It was really only a paraphrase of the old story of the grub and the butterfly. The little, starveling drudge who had found him in the store, that first day, had completely vanished; it was as if she had never been. In her place he discovered a girl all grace and loveliness, her slender figure ripening into gracious womanhood; a girl of mind and heart and understanding, all fire and tenderness; demure, intelligent, with a pretty pose of independence and sureness of herself moderated by modesty and reserve. Her travelling dress of sober colouring and severe lines became her bewitchingly. Beneath the brim of her dainty hat, with veil thrown back, her dark hair waved back, glossy with the sheen of perfect well-being, from a face serenely charming--the more so for her slightly deepened flush; and the eyes that shone into Nat's danced with the light of enjoyment, bred of his supreme astonishment....

"Nat, I'm so glad to see you again!"

He was speechless.

She laughed, put down her suit-case, and moved toward him, offering him both her hands. He took them, stammering.

"It's such a surprise, Betty----!"

"I knew it would be. I just couldn't wait, Nat, when I found I could get here by the night train instead of tomorrow morning. I haven't been home, you know, but I couldn't resist the temptation to stop in here and see--what the store looked like after all these months. Besides, I thought that you or father----" Her eyes fell and she faltered, withdrawing her hands.

By now he had himself in hand. "Why," he laughed, "you nearly took my breath away. Even now I can hardly believe it..."

"Believe what, Nat?" she asked quickly.

"That you're the same little Betty Graham. I never saw such a change."

"It's a change for the better, isn't it, Nat?" she asked with a smile half wistful.

"I should think it was. It's just marvellous!"

"Did I seem so very awful, then?"

"Nonsense. You know you didn't, only, now..."

"Then you think father will be pleased?"

"If he isn't, I'm blind!"

She looked away, embarrassed, and touched by his interest and his feeling. "And does it make you a little proud, Nat?"

"Proud!" he exclaimed blankly.

"Because you know you've done it all. If there's any improvement in Betty Graham to-day, it's because of you. If it hadn't been for you----"

"Never in the world; you don't know what you're talking about, Betty. Nobody but yourself could have brought about this change. It had to be in you before it could come out. You know that."

She shook her head very decidedly, seating herself on one of the chairs by the soda-fountain. "Oh, no," she contradicted calmly and sincerely. "Why, Nat, don't you suppose I have any memory? You began making me a better girl the very first day we met here in the store, by the things you said to me. And ever since I've been watching you, while you were making life a Heaven for father and me, and thinking that if I were a man I'd try to be as near like you as I could."

"Oh, don't say that," he pleaded wretchedly.

"It's true.... And when you sent me away to school I promised myself I'd try to repay you for the sacrifice you must be making for me; that I'd follow your example as nearly as ever I could; that I'd work hard and try to treat people the way you do--kindly, Nat, and considerately, and bravely and tenderly and honestly----"

He dropped into a chair near her and buried his head in his hands. "Don't!" he begged huskily. "Please, Betty, don't!"

But she wouldn't stop, little guessing how she was racking his heart in her innocent desire to make him understand how deeply she appreciated all he had done for her. "And, O Nat, it's worked so wonderfully! It's made all the girls at school like me, and it's made me understand and like everybody else better; and now, what's ten thousand times the best of all, you notice an improvement the minute you see me! And I--I never was so happy in all my life." She bent forward and took one of his hands, patting it softly. "Nat, I think you're the very best man in the whole world!"

"Don't!" he groaned. "Don't, for Heaven's sake!"

"Oh, I know, Nat--I know you don't like me to say this, but I must, just the same, tell you the truth about yourself. It's so splendid to live the life you do. You're all unconscious of it, but I want you to realise it and know that I do, too. You've made everybody love you and..."

But confusion silenced her, and she gently replaced his hand. For several moments neither spoke. Then Nat broke the tension with a short, hard laugh.

"That's right," he said inscrutably; "that was the idea...."

"Nat, what do you mean?"

He turned to her. "Betty, does it make you--feel that way toward me?"

She coloured divinely. "Why, Nat, of course ... Why, everyone..."

"That's why I came here, Betty," he pursued, blind to her embarrassment. "I came here with the idea... of getting married...."

He was staring gloomily at the floor and could not see the light that dawned upon the girl's face. Absorbed in the struggle with his conscience he had no least suspicion of how his words were affecting her. He knew only that he must somehow make a confession to her, that to own her regard and gratitude on the terms that then existed between them was utterly intolerable.

"You never guessed that, did you?"

"No," she breathed brokenly. "No, Nat, I--"

"Well, it's the truth and...." He rose and moved away. "But I can't tell you just now--not now...."

"No, not now, Nat." Betty, too, got up. "I think I'd better go home and see father--I mustn't forget--" she faltered, half blinded by the mist of the happiness before her eyes.

"No--wait." She stopped to find his gaze full upon her; for the first time he comprehended that she had not understood, that, worst of all, she had misunderstood. "I must tell you," he blurted desperately, "I must."

Instinctively she moved a step toward him. He hung his head.

"To-night, Betty--this evening, just a little while ago, I became engaged to Josie Lockwood."

She stood as if petrified throughout a wait that seemed to both interminable. Then he heard her catch her breath sharply. He looked up, frightened, but she was smiling steadily into his face. Somehow he found her hand in his.

"Oh, Nat dear," she said, "I'm so glad for you.... I wish you all the happiness in the world. I ... Good-night."

The hand slipped out of Nat's. He did not move, but waited there with his empty palm outstretched, despair in his eyes and hell in his heart, while she walked quietly from the store.

After some time he awoke to the knowledge that she was gone.

"Blithering fool!" he growled. "Why didn't I know I loved her like this?" He took a turn to and fro, distracted. "And now I've made a mess of everything! Good Lord! what can I do? I must do something or go mad!" He swung round behind the soda-fountain counter and seized a bottle. "I know what! The rules are off! I can have a drink! I can have two drinks! I can have a million drinks if I want 'em!"

Pouring a generous dose of raw whiskey into the glass he lifted it to his lips and threw back his head. But the heavy bouquet of the liquor was stifling in his nostrils, and the first mouthful of it almost choked him. In a fury he flung the glass from him, so that it crashed and splintered upon the floor. "Great Heavens!" he cried. "I don't like the stuff any more.... But"--his gaze fell upon the cigar case--"I can have a smoke. That'll help some!"

With feverish haste he snatched a cigar from the nearest box, gnawed off one end, and thrusting the other into the alcohol lighter, puffed vigorously. But to his renovated palate the potent fumes of the tobacco were no less repugnant than the whiskey had been. Half strangled, he plucked the cigar from his mouth and stamped on it.

"Oh," he cried wildly, "I'll be--I'll be damned!"

He paused, staring vacantly at nothing. "And even that doesn't do any good! God help me, I've forgotten how to swear!"

To him, in this overwrought state, came Tracey, lumbering cheerfully in, his mouth shaped for a whistle. At sight of Nat he pulled up as if hit by a club.

"'Evenin', Mister Duncan. What's the matter?"

By an effort Nat brought his gaze to bear upon the boy and comprehended his existence.

"Ain't you feeling well, Mr. Duncan?"

"No--rotten!"

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing!" Nat shouted ferociously.

"Anything I kin----"

"No!"

At that instant Kellogg appeared. "Hello, Nat! What's been keeping you? I came down to bring you home to supper."

"Go to blazes with your supper! Keep away from me! Don't talk to me! I don't want anything to do with you, d'you understand? You and your confounded systems have got me into all this----"

He caught sight of his hat abruptly, ceased talking, grabbed the hat and jammed it on his head, muttering; then started on a run for the door.

"But what's the matter?" demanded Kellogg, thunderstruck. "Here! Hold on! Where are you going?"

"To the only place I can get any consolation--church!"